16 Apr Girl Trek ~ Morgan Dixon Aspires to Get One Million Black Women Walking
Hey everybody! Yeah I know it’s been way too long since the last edition of the Joy Trip Project podcast. As it happens I’ve been crazy busy traveling, writing and yes conducting interviews. But most of the audio I’ve been recording over the last several months has been going toward a series of profiles for Outside Magazine. Check out the May 2018 cover story, which I wrote, called “The New Faces of Adventure”. This wonderful spread edited by Michael Roberts with photographs by Joao Canziani features 12 emerging athletes and activists who in their own words share the stories of their efforts to make outdoor adventure more diverse equitable and inclusive. The May issue of Outside Magazine is on newsstands now so go out and get a copy. Or hang tight watch for the online edition available on April 20, 2018 at outsideonline.com
But getting back to the podcast, I was recently inspired by a remarkable post on Facebook from my friend Vanessa Garrison. She and another friend Morgan Dixon appeared at the 2018 TED Conference. As the creators of a women’s empowerment initiative called Girl Trek and they were introduced virtually to the TED stage my non other than Oprah Winfry
Oprah: Hi all! I hope you’re having a great TED Conference. I wanted to chime in virtually here to introduce you to two women that I think are doing some of the most transformational work on our planet. It’s big. I mean it’s really big. And it’s wise because it’s based on the wisdom of nature, that cataclysmic shifts start with just a tiny seed. These two women understand that the world is changed when nations are changed and nations are changed when cities are changed. Cities get changed when communities are changed. And communities are changed when individuals are changed. And when we look at history we know that some of the most potent change makers are, let’s be real people, Black women. So let’s start with them. Get these movers and shakers, get them talking. Get them dreaming and plotting and oh wow. Oh wow. Wow imagine what’s going to come of that. I’d like to introduce you to the seed planners and the co-founders of Girl Trek Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison!
So I’m watch this video and Vanessa and Morgan step out onto the stage. Morgan gives a nod to Oprah and then there’s Vanessa.
Vanessa Garrison: Now many of you may know us. We Are the co-founders of Girl Trek the largest health organization for black women in America. Our mission is simple: ask black women, 80 percent of whom are over a healthy body weight, to walk outside of their front door every day to establish a life saving habit of walking. In doing so ignite a radical movement in which black women reverse the devastating impacts of chronic disease, reclaim the streets of their neighborhoods, create a new culture of help for their families and stand on the front lines for justice. Today all across America more than a hundred thousand black women are wearing this Girl Trek blue shirt as they move through their communities. A heroic force.
JEM: Right out of the gate Venessa lays out the basic strategy that Girl Trek recommends to its leaders and follower how they can make positive changes their lives and the communities in which they live.
VG: One: to have a bold idea, bigger than anyone is comfortable with. Two: Root d in the cultural traditions of your community and lean heavily on what has come before. Three: Name it. That one thing that everyone is willing to work hard for a ridiculously simple goal that doesn’t just benefit the individual but the village around them. And lastly: never ask permission to save your own life. It is our fundamental right as human beings to solve our own problems.
JEM: Let’s just say that this video got my creative juices following and I suddenly remembered one of the many interviews sitting on a shelf in my office waiting to be edited. In November 2017 I attended the SHIFT Conference in Jackson Wyoming. I had the rare opportunity to sit with Morgan Dixon to have her share with me the story behind the vision and passion of Girl Trek. I’m James Edward Mills and you’re Listening to The Joy Trip Project
JEM: I’m talking to Morgan Dixon and Welcome to The Joy Trip Project.
Morgan Dixon: Thank you.
JEM: Well first of all we don’t know that for a little while. Tell me what you start. How did you start doing that now?
MD: It’s an interesting question because the work I’m doing now is an extension of my lifestyle. It’s not a business plan so I run a national health organization called Girl Trek. We have 100,000 members. We call (them) Freedom Riders their neighborhood walkers. They walk for better health in groups in bright blue shirts. You’ve probably seen them in your parks. We’re growing to a million. Our mission is to walk to improve our health but also to inspire our daughters to get outside to breathe in fresh air, and then to reclaim the streets of our neighborhoods. Because we know when people are outside neighborhoods look and feel different. And so our goal is to inspire a million black women to walk in the 50 highest need cities in America. And we think that’s going to change things pretty fundamentally on many different fronts. And so how do you start walking? Is what you’re saying and that’s a silly question for me to even ask myself because I’ve always been walking and black women have always been walking. It certainly isn’t innovative in that way. I think what’s innovative is, tying walking to new issues of climate change, issues of violence in the streets, a pressing issue of a crisis around health and preventable chronic disease. And then tying walking to change making, where we really say that when women walk together and survey the needs of their neighborhoods they become the most informed and qualified change makers there. So what happens eventually is women start to create gardens or they see blighted homes and they start to offer help or lots and they and they do murals. They do all sorts of amazing things or they volunteer with the city council or the local park service or Sierra Club or whatever. So it’s an amazing thing. I started my career in the outdoors if that’s what you would call this. I’m not sure if it’s a career in the outdoors, but as a Girl Scout. I was a Girl Scout until the 12th grade Secretly
MD: Yeah. My silver award I didn’t earn my gold the word because I was too embarrassed when I was a senior in high school like to do to the stuff. But I was a senior when I quit the Girl Scouts. I was a Girl Scout my entire life. And I think it had an impact on me. I really do.
JEM: We’ll circle back to that. But I’m curious. Can you define for me the need? I mean just in terms of the disparities in women’s health particularly African-American women. That’s your primary focus in this. Tell me about why walking is going to be such a big benefit to that particular need an African-American.
MD: That’s interesting. Yeah we do consider ourself a health organization but just as you said it I sort of reject that health is the root cause need Actually. But I will explain. Black women are disproportionately suffering from preventable obesity related disease. Obesity is not the issue though. Inactivity is the issue. Right?
And why is inactivity the issue, is then the question you ask. Because that’s the question I’m interested in. Obesity is easy to blame. It’s easy to shame it’s easy to judge. Inactivity is much more interesting to think about and it’s actually more true to the problem. So is it a lack of leisure time? Those are labor rights issues. Is it a lack of safety? Because then that is public policy issues. Is it a lack of kind of social acceptance or cohesion or inspiration? Because those are huge issues that have implications of American history for hundreds of years. And so we think it’s all of the above. So we name inactivity as our core issue. And 70… God what is this statistic? Two out of three black women get little to no leisure time physical activity. And that shocked me.
JEM: That’s over percent!
DM: Yes. Why are we getting no leisure time physical activity? That’s an interesting question. And so for me when we come to conferences or we kind of problem-solve around the outdoor industry or recreation… Like recreation has never been a priority in my hierarchy of needs. It hasn’t. And in fact outdoor exercise is one of two things. It is frivolous and a luxury for people who have too much time on their hands or it is labor. It is physical labor. Right? That’s what working outside means to me.
So changing that narrative has been huge for our organization, because what I know from what I know for sure in the words of momma Oprah what I know for sure is that being outside has been a sanctuary that has saved my life many a days. And so if I can in a very authentic way name precisely what that looks like what it feels like how much it costs all of those things so that I can bring as many women with me. That’s what Girl Trek has been about. So when we talk about it in terms of just this very kind of clinical health definition which is not what you did but what I have often done it misses all of that and what I say it we’re doing is we are inspiring women to get outside and to walk in the direction of their healthiest most fulfilled life which is different.
JEM: Was there a point in time when that was your personal aspiration? Was there a transitional moment what happened that made you decide to find walking?
MD: Yeah! This is what Girl Trek is. No no no. Girl trek started with two friends me and Vanessa Garrison and we realized that we were, this life that we were living was a set up for a takedown. It was like a set up for an early grave and we knew it for sure and had evidence because so many of the women we know love and were raised by were ill, depressed and were dying prematurely. And so we were kind of being we were following in those footsteps.
JEM: You could see it.
MD: We were working too hard. I was a complete workaholic because I was trying to prove my worth to the world, which many of us do. Right? Not just black people not just women. All of us are trying to prove our worth on this planet. And so we worked too hard. I was working. I mean I had a BlackBerry back in the day. Just… I was walking down the streets of Manhattan with my BlackBerry. It was ridiculous. And also all these other kind of poor decisions I was making. And Vanessa was the same way and we kept checking in as friends and as friends said “What are we going to do different?” And so we held each other accountable and we set these kind of small inspiring attainable goals. I did a NOLS trip. It was 50 miles backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail in the Poseidon Wilderness and never thought I could do something like that. Smashed it! For the record. She did her first half marathon. The way we started is we started training by getting outside every day and walking. So when we achieved those goals everyone wanted to be down. They were like oh that looks pretty… You know you’re black girl. I know you. You’re in the mountains. Where are you at? How do I do that? We’re like, well let’s start walking. So we challenge our friends to walk with us. The first summer 500 of us walked. And fast forward three and a half years later and you know many of their friends are walking with them and we’re about a hundred twelve 112,000 now.
MD: Nationwide 112,000. So from two friends to a hundred thousand it’s not so bad but it’s not enough. So we are… we have set a really audacious bold beautiful goal that’s completely achievable to get a million women walking. There are 17 million black women. We did the calculation in order to get critical mass. We think we need a million to change the culture of being outside being active being healthy role models.
JEM: I think the African-American community has a long tradition of walking. I mean you can talk about the march to freedom led by Harriet Tubman. You can talk about the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King. Tell me about this particular form of walking as an expression of African-American culture but also the struggle.
MD: First of all I’m super grateful to you. I was listening in the film An American Ascent when you were talking about Dr. King and the mountaintop and how you thought he was talking metaphorically but also actual mountaintops, and I meant to tell you this. So we call our organizer training the mountaintop and we do it on the rocky mountains every year and we think it is an homage to do exactly that. So we have hundreds of black women come to Estes Park and we train and we do hikes and we do CPR and we do all sorts of amazing things. So to answer your question, walking for us is an act of resistance. When you are lying on the couch which I love to binge watch Netflix. I am a pop culture junkie. I love to sit down. I love to eat nachos. When I am in this space of wallowing and overwhelmed by the State of the world and the planet, I find it very difficult to act and sometimes and I feel like I need to act on a human scale, which when I’m in my yoga practice is breathing. Which when I am in my Girl Trek practice is lacing up my sneakers, opening my front door and taking a walk. So it is as much a meditation as it is a collective action. We ask women. You can walk as much or as little as you need to. If you are trying to save your life we recommend you watch at least five days a week 30 minutes a day outside to get vitamin D and fresh air. If you are not walking to save your life and you’re doing other things because you’re healthy and an amazing woman we ask you to walk in solidarity on Saturdays. And we call those superheroes Saturday. So in any major city where there are large population of African-Americans go to any park you will see large groups of black women on Saturday mornings. 9:00 a.m. roll call for Super Hero Saturdays. And so it is an act of collective sisterhood. It is an act of forward momentum, of meditation of healing. I think lastly it is a reconnection with our spiritual selves in everything bigger. So the one thing I care most about with the outdoors is the ability to realize how small I am. When I think that I have to be big enough to change the world. Right? Then I go when I say you know the trees are doing a lot of heavy lifting them home. So I think we have some support here. And so I think it is also a spiritual journey for me.
JEM: Sure. Now you kind of alluded to the possibility that you don’t consider what you do outdoor activity or being part of the outdoors. And I think that a lot of people especially as we’ve made the outdoors less accessible just by virtue of the fact that you know some people find it expensive some people find it…that you to drive long distances to get to nature. But it sounds to me like you’re talking about find nature where you are, being part of the natural environment in your own neighborhood. How much of that is part of the Girl Trek mission?
MD: So we are environmentalists. And we are environmentalists who are new to the movement because we have been welcomed by our partners like the Sierra Club and REI and kind of Altessa and all these amazing… Shift Conference… All these amazing people who with open arms have said the park system both kind of city parks Alliance national park system all these just amazing allies who said We welcome Girl Trek in the form of environmentalism. Whatever it looks like for you we welcome you and your model of change. For me that was important because prior to that the outdoor industry felt exclusive. And not by race necessarily, almost more by income. Where I when I when I went to go buy my gear for my first NOLS trip. I was a teacher. I couldn’t afford anything. I had to get my rain from Wal-Mart and it was sub optimal to say the least. And when I’m on my trip and it’s raining and I don’t have the proper gear I don’t feel like an equal, right? Because I couldn’t afford it. And so like I think it’s prohibitive in many ways both in terms of education. Topography and reading out a map requires some level of kind of higher learning and literacy. So I think it is prohibitive in that way. I think it’s prohibitive in terms of cost. Like we’ve talked about. Even to get to a beautiful place like Jackson Hole, how much is the flight? It’s so expensive to get here. So for me … The language like I don’t know what crampons are like I barely know what a kayak is but I bought one so don’t front. Don’t get me in the water. Ok I’m ready. So I’m just saying like it was prohibitive and it felt exclusive.
I feel now that we are in a position where it requires a critical mass of people to own the future of our planet. And so I have to get over myself and I have to create a language that is acceptable to me and people who look and sound like me where we can also claim the responsibility of conservation environmentalism on our terms.
JEM: When you take a look at what you’ve accomplished and you’re just back from being at the inaugural Obama Foundation meeting in Chicago. First of all, I’m very curious to know. How did you get that invitation? At what point did the work that you do come to the attention that of former President Obama?
MD: It’s interesting people. My mom asked me. That everyone asked me. Right? It’s interesting When we recently spoke on the main stage of TED. We’ve been at the Obama Foundation. We’ve been in the White House. We’ve been in these incredible surreal places. Just surreal! Right? And people have asked and I have asked and in fact when we’ve got our first e-mail from the first lady I thought it was spam. I was thinking what is this? It was like bring your ID come to the White House. This is First Lady Obama. We’re like OK thank you. That’s funny. We literally didn’t… How did she get our e-mail address? We don’t know. This is what I know. Lots of people are talking about solutions. I think what is required now is for people to learn from the freedom fighters of the past and take bold and courageous action. And fail fast if you have to. Start again, until you can create traction that is working to change people’s lives. And I know this isn’t like it’s answering the question but it is. Because we did not ask for permission from anyone and we did not require the support of anyone and we tapped into our own agency around this and then we rallied our allies. We were not locked in on building a strategic plan and scaling and getting the attention of other people. We had a very clear impact metric. We needed to impact the lives of a million black women. We needed to impact the communities and the culture and the environments of the 50 highest need cities. That was it. It is amazing when you are crystal clear on what your impact is on the world, how people will rally to support it. So that is the bigger and I think a more honest answer to this. So because we were making changes in the streets.. And this is a good story. Someone put us in contact with somebody at Oprah’s magazine and she was executive producer, and she said… We’re like well we just want to meet Oprah. This early on. We had done anything. We would like 10,000 people. That was something but we didn’t we weren’t making a movement yet. And she was like, OK well get your weight up first on like social media, like prove that you’re doing the work then come back to me.
So we don’t need to ask for people to support us now. They actually need us as allies because we are powerful. We are powerful not because I’m powerful but because we have rallied everyday citizens to be change makers. So I would argue that the Obama Foundation and TED needs to collaborate with Girl Trek because I feel like I need to collaborate with Girl Trek. Because I feel like the only power that we have is our collective is our collective selves right now. And so anybody who’s about any other business we don’t have time for. So that’s the answer. And then the short answer is that people, really radical amazing people who have heard us on interviews like this who made it their responsibility to make sure that together we could succeed at getting to a million because it’s hard. We’re only at 100000. So somebody’s listening to this today may say I have a great idea for Girl Trek getting to a million or I am in retail where I am whatever I’m in media and I want to help spread the word of this mission because I believe it’s important. That’s how we got there.
JEM:So let’s get this to scale and you get that million women to walk. What will you have accomplished short of getting a million women on their feet. What is the end goal?
MD: OK so not if, when. When we get to a million. It’s going to happen. I have to believe that. Every day I have to be relentless about it. When we get to a million. We have gotten to a million! (laughing)…I’m kidding! Listen! Women walking is a powerful outcome. That’s number one and I don’t want to dismiss that. A million women being active every day in their streets is a powerful outcome. But guess what. It’s actually just the beginning. Right? When a million women are walking we then ask that 1 million women, What do we do in your communities? Right? When a million women are walking along the way they are auditing the needs of their neighborhoods and they are already because they are brilliant making changes. Right? So here’s a great example. There were women in Seattle just recently, just a few weeks ago. One woman had lost her son to gun violence. I think two or three years ago. I don’t know her. I saw her actually on Facebook with her Girl Trek shirt on. Never seen her in my life and she was talking and she was rallying people. What happened was there were three shootings I think in Seattle where young men were either injured or killed in like one week. And it triggered her loss. Right? She got on Facebook with her Girl Trek shirt on and asked mothers to walk with her in the honor of the young men who had just been shot. They walked through the parks that were the most violent parks in Seattle. Altogether there must have been 50 of them. Did she ask permission? No. No but she’s out of her home. She’s walking everyday. She’s thinking, she’s praying, she’s looking, she’s observing. So when things happen she’s activated already. So she’s ready to activate other mothers. So just imagine when things happen in the community you have a million healthy active kind of cohesive..You’ll have communities everywhere of women who are ready to make change. And we think that’s a global solution. We don’t think it’s just for black women. We think it’s for people across the globe. Yeah.
JEM: I’m going to just let you know that my heart stopped just a little bit because that is a very wonderful empowering image. And I like the concept of auditing your community. So at that point once you start walking and you take a look around you can hopefully see what needs to be done. And so that’s not necessarily what you will tell them to do. It is what they will tell themselves that they’re going to do. So at the end of the day I would imagine that with working with an organization like the Obama Foundation, what do you need? You know that’s a big question when you really needed to facilitate this. You already let me know that a million women is the goal. But you don’t know how. Is it just getting more outreach like we’re having this conversation now? What you need to do to make that happen?
MD: Thank you for that. Thank you for asking that question. So we do have a good sense of how we’re going to get there and what has worked to date has been finding women. We have kind of a brand of woman that is dynamic at Girl Trek. We call them the two R’s. Right? So she’s radiant because she’s doing her own work inside and she has a rallying power. OK you can’t have one or the other. You have to both. So have to be kind and radiant and people have to follow you. Alright? Those are the women who we train to be organizers in their communities. Those are the women who organize their churches their HBCs, their community councils their sororities. So the first thing we need are kind of R-squared women. Right? So 2-R women, double-R women radiant and rallying power. So if you’re listening and you are a black woman who is about your business of healing yourself and by the way you can influence people and you routinely carry a clipboard at church. You are the woman we are looking for. Please go to a Girl Trek. ORG. Sign up for one of our next trainings. Look for us in your city. Everything we do we try and make it affordable and free if possible for everyone. So that’s the first thing. We really amazing organizers.
From having organizers what happens is local media is everything. So the local media has started to amplify stories of success. Women are losing weight. Women are joining their city council. Women are getting crosswalks put in. And the local media is amplifying those stories. And when women read those stories in their local papers they then come out and join Girl Trek. So that has been really important. That message. If you are doing something active even the smallest thing you can do is buy a Girl Trek shirt and wear it when you’re doing something active, because that is collective action. Hashtag Girl Trek!
On an institutional level, what we are starting to need are things like everything from economies of scale. Like as we have a hundred thousand women now who are all buying gear all buying new gear because they are losing weight every month, we need to be able to stock our store with high quality gear breathable fabrics that are in all shapes and sizes that are flatter into women’s bodies from our community and we’ve had a really great partner start to step up and factories that are doing really great work really kind of ethical work. Stepping up to make sure price points are affordable and our quality store remains high. As we start to mobilize a critical mass of women. We’re going to need help really thinking through policy and really thinking about… Great, We flew to Flint when the water crisis happened. We brought our best organizers and we canvassed churches, parks. We went on a holiday and all the families are at at park. We were in the park with them. We were at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart. We canvassed all of Flint. That’s wonderful. When women are walking in Flint. But we actually need women who can be trained in advocacy so that they can help make sure that that water crisis never happens again, because walking’s great. Sisterhood’s great. But lead in your baby’s water something else. And so as we start to assess and audit the needs of our communities we will need access to be able to advocate but effectively when we do that. So those are some of our needs.
JEM: This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
If you’re that woman in church with the clipboard or you just want to make a difference in your community check out Girl Trek. You’ll find a link to Morgan and Vanessa’s TED talk on the Joy Trip Project web site. And you can find these amazing change makers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or at girltrek.org. For the Joy Trip Project this is James Edward Mills
Music in this edition of the podcast by Adrian Berenguer.
I’m always looking for original music to share so send me links to your favorite bands and artists. And if you’ve enjoyed this podcast please subscribe to Joy Trip Project on iTunes. While you’re there be sure leave a comment so other listeners can find it too. I’m always happy to hear from you so please drop me a note with your questions comment and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org For now go be joyful and until next time, take care.