GirlTrek gathers on the National Mall for the centennial of Harriet Tubman’s passing.

Jacob Templin, Cat Cheney

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4 Out of 5 Black Women Are Overweight. This Group Has the Solution --- and They Are on the March

The founders of GirlTrek are channeling African-American heritage to tackle the health crisis among black women.

The trouble started in grade school. Mom had changed shifts at the local hosiery factory. Dad was working long hours as a mechanic. Big brother had left town after enlisting in the Army. So Vonda Vass Summers would come home each day to an empty house in Henderson, N.C. Alone and bored, she found solace in bologna sandwiches and boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese. She binged, then hid the evidence, hoping no one would see what she’d done.

Her weight fluctuated wildly in middle school, high school and college, spiking up, plunging down. She tried Weight Watchers—some 25 times over the years. Summers married, and took a government job in Washington, D.C. But nothing seemed to help. Other health problems materialized: diabetes, high blood pressure, depression. And she developed  trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder sometimes called the suicide disease because of the intense facial pain it can cause.

She lost her job, and moved home to Henderson with her husband, so her parents could care for her.

Medication helped ease the aching, but now that she could chew again, the weight kept piling on. Hurting and ashamed as the scale crested 270 pounds, Summers took to her basement, popping 30 pills a day—living, to hear her tell it, in a “zombie-like state.”

A visit to a general practitioner in 2010 put a scare in her. He alerted her to her family’s history of diabetes and high blood pressure, and issued a blunt warning: change your ways, or prepare for an early grave.  Summers vowed to try anew. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she says, referencing the famous words etched on the tombstone of civil-rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer.

Hamer’s spirit may have saved Summers’ life. In 2012, she joined some friends on Facebook who had signed up for GirlTrek, a new organization that channels African-American history to encourage black women to walk their way toward better health.  This time, something clicked; combining exercise with a fresh stab at Weight Watchers, she shed 100 pounds. In her first spring with the group, she began leading other women in her hometown on walks—earning one of the group’s Harriet Tubman Trek Leader Awards, named for the abolitionist who guided slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Soon, she was selected as a GirlTrek Trailblazer—and began training to run.

In April, Summers did something that once would have been unthinkable. She entered—and finished—the Divas Half Marathon in Myrtle Beach, S.C. As she stood at the starting line, the 13.1 miles ahead must have seemed like nothing compared to the distance she’d traveled to arrive at that moment. Bedecked in superhero blue, she began stretching, tears of pride streaking down her face.

GirlTrek’s founders, Vanessa Garrison and Morgan Dixon, started the nonprofit in 2010, and have already motivated thousands of women to follow in Vonda’s footsteps. They know there are miles to go. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80 percent of black women are overweight or obese—surpassing every other demographic group in the country. Over the age of 55, one in four has diabetes. And black women face elevated risk for stroke and high blood pressure.

Then there are the social barriers to scale. A disproportionately high percentage of black women are single mothers; finding the time to work out can be especially difficult. “A lot of black women tend to be the primary caregivers or caretakers within their families or within their communities and tend to put their own health last,” says Valerie Rochester, director of program development and training at the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a nonprofit aimed at improving the wellness of the nation’s 19.5 million black women and girls. “It is very difficult to take care of others when you don’t have the ability to take care of yourself.”

Even the idea of “working out” can be fraught; Summers says where she comes from, exercise for the sake of exercise among adults can carry a stigma—as something “white folks do.”

Garrison and Dixon, who started GirlTrek together, grew up all too aware of the challenges.  “We both come from pretty typical backgrounds, but with those backgrounds come a lot of barriers, and we were nervous what those barriers meant for the trajectories of the rest of our lives,” says Dixon, who met Garrison in 1997 while the two, undergraduates at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, were moonlighting at a local investment bank.

GirlTrek on the National Mall

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Theresa Thames, a pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church, delivered the prayer before GirlTrek's Harriet Tubman walk in Washington, D.C. Cat Cheney for NationSwell

Dixon went on to join Teach for America, as a high school instructor in Atlanta, and a school administrator in Newark, N.J. She helped develop a slew of public schools in New York City before landing a top job with one of the largest charter school networks in the country.  Garrison moved to Atlanta, where she worked as a project manager for Turner Broadcasting, then headed to D.C., taking a job with a nonprofit working with incarcerated women. But the two stayed in touch by phone, sharing concerns about the scant supply of healthy foods in low-income communities and the toll music videos can take on women’s body images.

“We were implicated in it,” says Dixon, whose voice sometimes trembles when she talks about the troubles black women face. “Our lives were implicated in it. There is my aunt, my mother, my sister and my niece,” she says. “Four of us are going to be overweight, and at least two of us are going to be morbidly obese.”

Dixon was also wrestling with a particular demon of her own—depression, which “made me harder than I wanted to be, meaner than I should have been,” she says, in a personal video testimonial on the GirlTrek website. “I feel like we medicate ourselves with alcohol, drugs, sex, church sometimes,” she continues in the video. “My drug of choice was work.”

Walking became her rehab. She started fast, intending to ramp up to run a 5K. But she found that slowing down calmed her, helped her discover nature, even prayer. On a road trip in an old Saab, she decided to make GirlTrek a full-time crusade.

And history—her history, the history of black women—was central from the start. The road trip traced the path of civil rights heroine Harriet Tubman, from a Maryland general store where the trailblazer was hit on the head for trying to help another slave, to her Auburn, N.Y., home—to her gravestone, which reads “Servant of God, Well Done.” If Tubman could rally the conscience of a nation, maybe her memory could help her spiritual descendants get women off the couch and on the road toward a better life.

“The inward idea of a personal fitness goal is not what motivates our members,” says Garrison, who was raised by her grandmother, along with 11 other kids, and has cousins who struggle with all manner of health woes. “We are not a workout group. We are an army of women who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

GirlTrek took its first steps in Bridgeport, Conn., where Dixon was working with a charter school at the time. Girls signed up; hikes were had. But something was wrong.  The founders quickly realized the program would require discipline and follow-through—the sort of thing that would be hard to accomplish without the support of the girls’ parents. “While it was seemingly transformative for a lot of the girls who went on these hikes with us, it didn’t seem fair to those girls that they had to be the health advocates in their families,” Dixon says.  Dixon and Garrison decided to tweak the formula: target the mothers. The cubs will fall in line.

After that, things grew quickly. Today, GirlTrek has a network of 15,000 women out walking, and more than 150,000 fans on Facebook. They further tap the power of social media by encouraging participants to post their activity on a corner of their site called the Locker Room. There, they tout their own achievements, urge others to join the fun—and create a library of ladies in action, a potent counterweight to negative social stereotypes.

When the group first started to build the site, Dixon says, it proved difficult to find stock photos of black women exercising; Google searches even yielded pornography. “If young women can’t picture what it looks like to be healthy, if they can’t see women who look like them in all shapes and forms glowing, sweating and exercising…they are not going to aspire to it,” says Dixon. “So we really want to raise the level of aspiration for our girls in terms of healthy living.”

The group urges its followers to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week—a regimen based on guidelines for exercise benefits drawn up by the Centers for Disease Control. In June of 2012, the group entered a social innovation award competition sponsored by Teach for America, and won—securing a year’s worth of funding, and ultimately attracting support from such groups as REI, the Sierra Club and the National Park Service. Working with 23 volunteer health leaders around the country, they have set a goal of recruiting one million women to the cause over the next five years.

Internally, Morgan is the head; Garrison the heart. “The mental component is so important, and Morgan really brings that focus, which is that we… really need to address the root causes of what is making us overweight,” Garrison says. “And then from my point of view it’s around the urgency of the mission. We literally are dying at higher and faster rates, and I’m talking about people I know and love and this is what it looks like. This is what crisis looks like.”

GirlTrek is hardly alone, of course, in promoting black women’s health. Black Girls RUN! was launched in 2009, promoting jogging as a means of combating obesity. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign targets childhood obesity generally—but has a special appeal for black women, coming from the first African-American first lady. The Black Women’s Health Imperative seeks to raise consciousness about all sorts of medical issues affecting African-American females.

What sets GirlTrek apart is its conscious channeling of heritage as a motivating force.

That impulse was on display last spring—March 10, 2013, the centennial of Harriet Tubman’s passing, when the group kicked off its spring challenge in Washington, with a moving tribute to the abolitionist.  Theresa Thames, a pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church, offered the opening prayer, telling the group they had gathered as sisters to reclaim their bodies, their lives and their communities. After doing their warm-up stretches, a pack of women and girls hit the trail—some solo (85 percent of the group’s walkers go it alone), others in groups, all at their own pace—across the National Mall toward the Lincoln Memorial. Beyond the Beltway, thousands more walked in solidarity—15,473 in all, sweating it out from Dorchester, Mass., to Atlanta to Sacramento, Calif., uploading their proud poses on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

The walk also brought Angela White, who has multiple sclerosis and makes the rounds in her neighborhood with the help of a walker. “I can walk. I may not be able to run, but I can walk. I’ve got a great walker. It’s got wheels. I can roll,” she says. “Knowing that I can get out here by myself and do it without having to be dependent on someone else is great,” she continues. “But knowing there are other people out there walking too, even if we’re not together in a group, is amazing. Just the solidarity, the community, the support, the encouragement, it is all there.”

While White was making her way across the National Mall, Erica Wynn, a junior at American University, was walking in her native Queens, N.Y. She got so into the GirlTrek mission that she pursued two backpacking trips to Alaska and a training course in Patagonia sponsored by the group. Wynn is also a runner, but finds the power of the walk to be a huge part of GirlTrek’s appeal. “Black women have walked our way out of slavery,” she says, and “into civil rights.”

They have traveled far, but the road ahead will not be easy. It can be tough persuading donors that a group that relies so heavily on grassroots volunteers is a worthy investment. (Dixon stresses the importance of the group staying lean, financially and otherwise, but acknowledges it may be time to hire a volunteer coordinator.)  And even some of its most ardent fans wish they could get the word out to more women at a faster pace.

Vonda Vass Summers says the only thing she would do to improve GirlTrek and further its impact is to inform a wider group of women about the organization.

“I wear my GirlTrek shirts a lot and I do that because I want people to ask me, ‘What is GirlTrek? I’ve never seen that before,’” says Summers.

“I just want us to do more about getting the word out there, spreading the mission getting more people involved.”

Summers was proudly flying the GirlTrek flag as she approached the last station of the Divas Half Marathon. “THIS IS WHY I’M HOT! www.girltrek.org,” her shirt read. Volunteers draped the runners with boas and tiaras, and assured the exhausted women that the finish line was near.

“It was like we got a second wind. We took off like bullets!” Summers says. “It was like when that butterfly bursts from the cocoon and is able to fly.”

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Catherine Cheney is the special projects editor at NationSwell. She previously worked for POLITICO and as a reporter and editor for international publications.

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