In early 2013, the Rev. Theresa S. Thames stumbled upon a Facebook page titled “GirlTrek: Healthy Black Women and Girls.”

“It saved my life,” she said.

Thames, then 33, was dangerously overweight and fighting depression. She sent the site her contact information and received an email from Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of GirlTrek, an organization that inspires black women to change their lives and communities by walking. Garrison learned that Thames was a pastor and invited her to lead a prayer at an event in Washington commemorating the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death.

“I was out there leading a prayer for this walking event in my 447-pound body and I felt like a fraud,” said Thames, who is the associate dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University. But she also found herself stirred by the spirit of the event.

“It wasn’t about looking good or weight loss or fitting into a certain type of clothing,” she recalled. “It wasn’t, ‘Hey, you fat person, you need to do this or you’re going to die.’ It was, ‘I love you and I want you to love yourself enough to invest in 30 minutes a day, to walk yourself to freedom like Harriet Tubman did.’ And that spoke deeply for me because my life work is showing up for other people, but I wasn’t showing up for myself.”

Thames completed the 100-minute walk that day. “My body was in pain,” she recalled. “But it felt good to be out there with other women. It was really encouraging because it was something I could do. So I committed to walking every day.”

She kept that promise. Over the past three years, she has lost more than 230 pounds. “I gained mental clarity and the resolve to take care of myself,” she said.

Thames is one of more than 58,000 women across the country who have joined GirlTrek’s movement and pledged to walk regularly in their neighborhoods and report their progress. There are tens of thousands of “solo trekkers” and 574 “trek teams” in more than 600 cities and towns. (Here is a map of coming treks.)

Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, right, co-founders of GirlTrek.
Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, right, co-founders of GirlTrek.

In the Forest Hill section of Jackson, Miss., for example, 15 to 20 women meet every weekday at 4:30 a.m. for a brisk walk. They call their team “Four Dark Thirty” (they meet before sunrise).

“It’s not a chore, it’s not exercise, it’s just going for a walk, and having a moment to reflect,” said Cynthia Thompson, an assistant director at Greater Bethlehem Temple Church, who is a volunteer city captain for GirlTrek in Jackson. “Some people in my church never had an in-depth conversation with each other until we started walking. It’s amazing the conversations that come up when you walk.”

A little west of Jackson, in Clinton, Miss., the Dynamic Divas of Clinton meet every day either before or after work. “It’s a lifeline for people,” said Kartessa Bell, an instructional coach at a public school and volunteer neighborhood captain. “Since they’ve been walking, one team member told me, she got off her depression medication. I’ve seen people growing more confident. One member went after a promotion at work.”

Each week, thousands of trekkers participate in “Superhero Saturday” walks. Groups of black women in bright blue T-shirts walking together have become regular features in hundreds of neighborhoods and parks.

The federal government’s guideline for adult physical activity recommends 30 minutes a day, five days a week. But there is a huge gap between guidelines and behavior. What makes GirlTrek so instructive is that it not only motivates people to be active on a significant scale, but that it does so with the statistically most sedentary subset of the population: black women, who have the highest obesity rates in the country. (GirlTrek focuses on them because their need is highest, but the organization welcomes anyone.)

“We’ve spent an enormous amount of money on research-based approaches to obesity prevention and treatment, and almost none of them have worked with black women,” says Gary G. Bennett, a professor at Duke University and a leading researcher on obesity. “One of the key predictors of positive treatment outcomes is really high levels of engagement. I’ve been doing work on obesity as it affects medically vulnerable populations for 15 years, and I don’t know of anything in the scientific community or any public health campaigns that have been able to produce and sustain engagement around physical activity for black women like GirlTrek does. Not even close.”

Bennett was so impressed that he joined GirlTrek’s board, as did Dr. Regina Benjamin, a former United States surgeon general. Together, they lead a committee focused on research and evaluation of GirlTrek’s impact on health.

GirlTrek grew out of the experiences of its two founders, Vanessa Garrison and Morgan Dixon, friends from college days, and began as a simple act of self-care and love. Garrison grew up in Seattle. When she was 5, her mother started using heroin; she was an addict for 15 years and spent eight years in prison. Garrison was reared by her grandmother and aunt and recalls a lot of emotional pain in the household.

“So much was happening negatively for the women who raised me: depression, despair, sadness and loneliness,” she said. “I felt a lot of guilt, but I wasn’t able to give back to them in any substantial way.” She began walking as “a very personal way of how you can heal from childhood traumas.”

Dixon grew up in Sacramento. Her parents came from Oklahoma. Her grandparents had been sharecroppers; one of her grandmothers had 11 children while the other had nine. “My maternal grandmother gave birth to one of her kids on an abandoned school bus,” she said. “My mother desegregated her high school in 1958. She experienced lots of trauma and she still wears that.”

These feelings — pain, fear and the emotional defenses they engender — get passed on, Dixon says. For black women, “our weight is a kind of layer; we are wearing protection.” When she began walking regularly, she found something was shifting inside. She became more aware of her body and the environment. “I experience less anxiety, feel more present, and am incredibly hopeful when I’m walking.”

After college, the two began successful careers. “We had good jobs and husbands, but it didn’t feel good because so many of the women we knew weren’t living the life we were living,” Dixon recalled. “We thought, ‘How do we start helping the women we know come along on this journey with us?’ And being overweight was the outward manifestation of what we knew to be deeper themes.”

In 2010, they got the idea for a 10-week walking challenge. They emailed 200 black women and asked them to forward the message. Six hundred responses came back from across the country. “At the end of 10 weeks, we weren’t prepared for what happened,” recalled Garrison. Stories flooded in. People said they were amazed they had been able to stick with it. “We heard: ‘This is changing my life. When are we going to do it again?’”

They began to wonder: Was there a need for a health movement for black women, led by black women, grounded in their values and culture? They mined inspiration from black history, the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, hip-hop and gospel music. They created a Facebook page as a platform for sharing stories. “When we first Googled ‘healthy black women and girls,’ porno images came up,” Dixon recalled. They don’t any longer. Within two years, they had 100,000 followers and 12,000 trekkers who were reporting their walks every week and regularly posting pledges, testimonies and photos.

Walking is often underestimated. It may be the single best way to improve your overall health (although dietary changes are more important for losing weight). Regular walking has major benefits: among other things, it reduces risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and dementia (pdf). And the benefits are shared. GirlTrek’s walkers love to bring their children along. This has special value: Obese adolescents become obese adults.
If a pill delivered the benefits of walking, people might pay thousands of dollars for it. So why don’t they walk more?

One problem is that it’s hard to inspire behavior by focusing on long-term goals. Behavioral scientists say it’s more effective to highlight near-term benefits embedded in an activity itself.

That’s what GirlTrek’s members do. They emphasize the rewards of taking time for yourself, getting outside and connecting with others in a nonjudgmental and noncompetitive environment. They don’t talk about hypertension or body mass index, but about feeling less anxious and having more energy. They don’t talk about looking good, but about looking alive: having the “GirlTrek glow.” They inspire women with images of courage and dignity. “They have lots of process motivators around black history — walking as Harriet Tubman did or retracing the steps at Selma — and they rapidly recycle them,” said Bennett.

They acknowledge the struggles and inequities that women face. “The mental act of saying every day, ‘I’m going to set aside time to do something that is healthy for myself even though I’m overwhelmed because I can’t pay my bills, my neighborhood is riddled with crime, and there are no sidewalks’ — that in itself is an act of resistance,” says Garrison.

They encourage women to think of their health as a community service; they celebrate trekkers when they reach goals and milestones. They encourage new traditions — a family walk after the Thanksgiving dinner, a ritual of walking the kids to school. And each month they begin a themed challenge. This month it’s “#Activism April.”

GirlTrek’s leaders and members aspire to build a national movement around women’s health. By 2018, they aim for a network of volunteers in the 60 American cities with the largest black populations, capable of rallying one million women to pledge to walk regularly. So GirlTrek is connecting with major black churches, historically black colleges and universities, black sororities, and civic organizations like the N.A.A.C.P., the Links and Jack and Jill. It has also formed partnerships with national organizations to train volunteers in nutrition and mental health and to serve as outdoor trip leaders, group fitness instructors and policy advocates for walkability and street safety.

One million is an audacious goal, and I’ll be following up to see how it goes. But it’s striking to consider how much change GirlTrek has already put in motion — especially given that it has a full-time staff of six and a budget of $725,000. “Innovation doesn’t require a lot of money,” says Garrison. “It requires a lot of passion. And we have that.”

For Thames, her weight loss has been just the beginning. “You can lose the physical weight and you’re still carrying around the mental stuff,” she said. “There are moments when I see a booth in a restaurant and I’m still nervous if I can fit.”

“Now I’m doing work on defining myself and my relationships with others,” she added. “This body renders me vulnerable in a way that I didn’t consider before. When you’re in a ‘normal’ size body, there’s all this sexuality and fashion and consumerism that gets put on it. There are a lot of layers of perfectionism that get added to this body that I’m in now.”

And there are new pleasures. “I went out to Colorado with GirlTrek and we hiked up a mountain,” she said. “Being able to do that was overwhelming. Even thinking about it now I get chills. And I think: what a difference this would have made for my mother or grandmother, if they had gone walking with others in superhero blue.”

David Bornstein is the author of “How to Change the World,” which has been published in 20 languages, and “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” and is co-author of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Source: The New York Times
April 5, 2016
By David Bornstein