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Trekking for Better Health
By Leslie Hunter-Gadsden

A grassroots organization galvanizes groups of black women across the country to improve their emotional and physical well-being.

What started as a conversation between two friends about improving their health and that of other black women, who are disproportionately affected by obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, has led to the creation of the nonprofit organization GirlTrek, which today is helping black women across the country walk their way to better emotional and physical health.

In their desire to find inspiration in their own lives, cofounders Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon, MEd, began to walk outdoors. “When we walked and got outside away from obligations and computers, we realized there is a vibrant world out there,” Dixon says.

Before Dixon began walking, she suffered from depression, “the kind that you don’t really know you have. It made me harder than I wanted to be and meaner than I wanted to be. It wasn’t ever addressed and was even celebrated as independence or success. I had it, my mother had it, many black women have it.”

To escape her depression, working became Dixon’s “drug of choice.” But “when I walked I felt transported” away from job deadlines and toward appreciating nature, she says.

Growing the Organization
Realizing the health benefits of walking firsthand, Dixon and Garrison became intentional about leading a “walking revolution” throughout black communities around the country.

In 2010, they sent out e-mails to friends challenging them to walk for 10 weeks. “Friends forwarded the e-mail to other friends, and we ended up with about 515 women who signed up for the walking challenge,” Garrison recalls. “The next year, in 2011, we started getting e-mails asking if we were going to organize another challenge, so we put forth an effort for a national challenge, even though Morgan and I were still GirlTrek volunteers and working other jobs.” Dixon specialized in education reform in the New York/New Jersey area, and Garrison worked in the media in Atlanta.

In 2012, Dixon and Garrison entered the GirlTrek idea in Teach for America’s Social Innovation Award competition. In June of that year, “We were awarded a year’s worth of funding from Teach for America.”

With funding in place, Dixon and Garrison left their jobs to run GirlTrek full time. Dixon serves as director of programs and Garrison as director of operations. They’ve been recognized by the Awesome Foundation as leaders to watch and named among the top 1% of global social innovators by Echoing Green, a nonprofit organization that provides funding for social leaders.

Currently, GirlTrek is funded through private philanthropy and fund-raising and has partnerships with the National Park Service, Kaiser Permanente, and REI, an outdoor sporting goods company, Garrison says.

What’s more, the organization has 25 representatives in cities across the country who lead walking groups and are trained in community organizing, the GirlTrek mission, and self-care. Reps reside in Los Angeles; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; St Louis; Oakland, California; Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee; Detroit; Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago; Atlanta; Henderson, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; southern Maryland; Washington, DC; Cleveland; Houston; Madison, Wisconsin; and Beaufort, South Carolina. Philadelphia has an active group of trekkers but no city rep.

In 2014, two staff members will be added to direct strategic growth and manage national field activities.

“In order to have an impact on the black community, you must have a critical mass of women involved,” Garrison says. “For 2014, we want to bring back the neighborhood walk. We want to focus on GirlTrek being fun, and make it a part of what we already do in the community—family reunions, church outings, holiday events. Have a ‘walk-off’ be part of your scheduled activities.”

Message of Inspiration
GirlTrek challenges women and girls to devote 30 minutes per day to self-care. “We don’t put an emphasis initially on the pounds they’re losing, but we focus on the minutes of walking,” Garrison says. “Our goal is to inspire women to live their healthiest lives and to move people from contemplation to action.

“We’ve been really intentional about our goal to be inspirational to our members. We exclusively focus on motivation. Once women start walking and get active, then we tell them here is a menu of options for a healthier lifestyle. We encourage them to work with each other to share tactics for improving their health through walking and dietary changes,” she adds.

GirlTrek organizes a calendar year of national walking challenges, including the 30-Day Jumpstart Walking Challenge; We Are Harriet, an eight-week walking challenge in the spring that pays tribute to Harriet Tubman; the Summer Trek Series in the summer in partnership with the National Park Service; and the National Church Challenge and 40-Day Gratitude Walk in the fall.

Dixon says GirlTrek’s official season runs March through November, but members are encouraged to keep walking during the off season as well. To keep women motivated, Garrison and Dixon have organized Trek Adventures to relaxing locales such as Sedona, Arizona, and Belize. They’ve pooled funds to rent a house and have taken women on walks and taught yoga.

Tracking Progress
According to January stats under the Locker Room page on the GirlTrek’s website, there are 19,324 registered trekkers who have walked a total of 2,773,867 minutes, covered 184,924 miles, burned 21.1 million calories, and lost 6,023 lbs of fat. Dixon and Garrison’s goal is to rally 1 million women and girls to join GirlTrek by 2018.

Through grassroots organizing and social media campaigns, GirlTrek supports more than 15,000 walkers, 300 volunteers, and an ever-growing network of 145,000 followers on its Healthy Black Women and Girls public Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, and private group Facebook pages its city reps facilitate. 

Women can join walking groups in their area, give testimonials about their experiences, create new groups, or become solo trekkers and log the minutes they walk at GirlTrek.org.

— Leslie Hunter-Gadsden is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in New York City.