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GirlTrek: Black Women Walking for Body, Mind and Soul

Jul 3, 2014, 10:21 AM, Posted by Keecha Harris

Keecha Harris GirlTrek

I first met my friend Leah in September 2013, when she started walking with GirlTrek in Birmingham, Ala. GirlTrek is a movement of thousands of Black women across the country mobilized in response to the problem of staggering rates of obesity and its co-morbidities. Leah read a local NPR article about Black women walking for wellness under the banner of GirlTrek, and she decided to check it out.

As a GirlTrek volunteer, it is always a pleasure to connect with women new to our local organizing efforts. Leah joined us on a Full Moon Trek. Under celestial brilliance, Leah and I walked into the woods of the Hillsboro Trail as strangers. By the end of the trek, I had a new and humorous sister who fearlessly faced the possibility of running into snakes and other wildlife.

And when there is the promise of a storm, if you want change in your life, walk into it.
If you get on the other side, you will be different.
And if you want change in your life and you’re avoiding the trouble, you can forget it.
—Bernice Johnson Reagon

Friends were exactly what Leah needed. She and her husband had moved to Birmingham in 2007 to escape Michigan winters, and to establish a vibrant community of people with common interests. The winters are warmer here, true—but friends aren’t always easy to come by when you’re a stranger in a new city.

And that was the beginning of Leah’s relationship with a warm, welcoming organization of women passionate about improving their health—and fostering change. In short: she found the new friends she had been seeking. But these friendships gave her much more than she anticipated. Her doctor had delivered the grim news the month before that she was pre-diabetic. So walking with others was very timely.

Leah found herself in good company. GirlTrek has a goal of engaging 1 million Black women and girls in its walking-related programming by 2015. The program is sparking a health revolution, and it does so by building upon the rich cultural legacy and assets of the African American community.

Take, for example, Harriet Tubman. She’s a patron saint to GirlTrek supporters. Tubman was known to walk as many as 15 miles per day in uncut forests, through mossy swamps and across the Appalachian Ridge. Within the course of a decade, Tubman walked north toward freedom with hundreds escaping slavery. If Harriet Tubman could walk her way into new realities, the thinking goes, then so can we.

Leah was intrigued by the Full Moon Trek—and why would she not want to be part of a group of Black women who trekked to the light of the moon?  We connected through Facebook, excited to learn more about each other during a night walk in nature.

Walking to bring about change was a familiar theme for Leah. In fact, she was born to trek.

“Thinking back, walking has always held importance in my life—even before I took my first steps or took my first breath of air. My mother was weeks past her due date. Upon her third trip to the hospital, she was put in a hospital gown and instructed to walk up and down the halls.”

Thereafter, Leah and her mother racked up quite a few miles on foot. On weekends and evenings, her mom walked to relish joy or to ease pains, with little Leah in tow: “She’d walk, and walk, and walk, and walk. My little legs would go as fast as they could to keep up. When we returned home, I’d nearly collapse. But of course the next time she put on her shoes, I’d be ready to go again!“

That began to change in October. Leah has stepped up to lead other walkers to wellness. For the past eight months, she has led daily treks at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. These “smokeless breaks” are about 30 minutes each, with two to six women walking together.  Sometimes they walk to Railroad Park. During inclement weather, they trek inside along the long corridors connecting area hospitals.  

All of that walking has paid off for Leah—in a way that the everyone should applaud her for. In 2003, Leah did her first half-marathon. Over the last eight months, she has lost 30 pounds ... and shaved 17 minutes off her half-marathon time. She is no longer taking Metformin to treat her pre-diabetes. She feels more confident and peaceful. Moreover, Leah has found the warm, vibrant community of friends that she desired when she moved here.

For Leah, there is now no challenge too great. In May, Leah and other GirlTrekkers committed to walk at least 52.4 miles to honor their mothers. She walked at work and on weekends with her 5-year-old daughter, Neah Imani, in tow. Neah’s name means "moving faith."

Movement has been transformational for these three generations of trekkers. Leah’s mom continues to inspire her walking journey. In fact, Leah’s mom lost over 40 pounds in 2013, by walking the hallways at the University during her breaks.  

These days, though, mom can’t keep up with Leah any longer. She says Leah walks too fast. But even though they can’t walk together, they’re still walking in common cause: to heal their bodies, soothe their souls and form community with other black women.

About the Author
Keecha Harris, DrPH, RD is a walking enthusiast who has trekked every day since October 2012.  Her consulting company has provided support to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Childhood Obesity Team and the Research, Evaluation and Learning unit.   

Coming to the Rescue of Young Men of Color

Feb 27, 2014, 4:30 PM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

The Alameda County Public Health Department's EMS Corps program is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

When he was 17, Dexter Harris was good at two things: football and hustling. Although he went to school, he spent most of his time trying to earn money. He wasn’t thinking about his future. He was thinking about surviving the here and now.

Instead of finishing his senior year, Dexter found himself in a California juvenile facility. There, he met a mentor named Mike who told Dexter about a new program, EMS Corps, that offered far more than emergency medical training (EMT) classes. EMS Corps also provided tutoring, mentoring and leadership classes, and was looking for people from the community who were willing and ready to serve in the emergency services field.

After hearing about EMS Corps, something changed for Dexter. He weighed his options and saw that with EMS Corps he could actually have the chance for a different life. Dexter threw himself into studying, and eventually graduated first in his EMS Corps class. As a certified EMT, Dexter now has a career with Paramedics Plus and returns to the juvenile facility to teach other young people about being a First Responder.

Dexter Harris Dexter Harris

In every community there are young men like Dexter who have the potential to succeed.  But like most young people, they need help and support to bring out their best.

Today, I was honored to be present at the White House as President Obama helped to add more momentum to a growing movement to expand opportunity for young men of color. I was joined by leaders from both the public and private sector committing their intellect, creativity, passion and resources to continue to identify solutions for men and boys of color.

I was inspired by the continuing and new energy to ensure that every young man has the opportunity make healthy choices and has the tools to live a healthy life. That includes skills to succeed in school and work. EMS Corps is just one bright light among the many innovative and inspiring approaches that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been proud to support as part of its effort to create a culture of health and opportunity for all young people.  This new national initiative announced at the White House brings a new chance to build upon this exciting and important work.

It’s not just EMS Corps. Look at our Forward Promise partners to see the richness of programs already lifting up young men. It’s not just the White House and our Foundation colleagues in this movement either. There are thousands of teachers, police chiefs, state and local legislators, judges, church leaders, and community based organizations from across the country that are taking steps to ensure that all young people in America, including our young men of color, have the opportunity to succeed. If our job is to build a culture of health for all young men, then those collective efforts are its vital building blocks.

As I arrived at the White House this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of Dexter. And of all of the “Dexters” who will benefit from this unprecedented moment of commitment to hope, change, and opportunity for our sons, brothers, students and neighbors. I’m proud to be a part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and of this larger movement. Together we can bring out the best in our young men. And they—in achieving their promise—can bring out the best in all of us.

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After Trayvon, 10 Reasons for Hope

Jul 17, 2013, 2:52 PM, Posted by Maisha Simmons

New Orleans - Forward Promise - Tyrone Turner - 04/2013

This past Sunday afternoon—the day after the Zimmerman verdict was announced—I stood in a crowd of people from all ethnicities and nationalities, babies and old folk, with people who looked like their address could be Park Avenue or a park bench. We all converged on Union Square in New York City in 100-degree heat to demonstrate our unity, chanting “Justice for Trayvon!”

In the midst of this peaceful protest, I could not stop thinking about a different event about to take place this week here at the Foundation and around the nation.

On Wednesday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) announced that it will invest approximately $5 million to support 10 initiatives around the country to improve the health of young men of color and improve their chances for success. The grants are part of RWJF’s $9.5 million Forward Promise initiative, started in 2011, and my colleagues and I have been preparing for this moment for months and months. It is one of the most exciting times in my career.

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African Americans' Lives Today: Reflections from an RWJF Investigator

Jun 11, 2013, 4:12 PM, Posted by Ari Kramer

James Jackson

Recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio conducted a national survey which provides a snapshot of African-Americans’ views on a range of issues in their personal lives and communities, including and beyond health and health care. A majority of respondents reported being overall satisfied with their lives and communities. At the same time, many reported concerns about their economic stability and resources to pay for a major illness, and experiences of discrimination.

To get some historical perspective and insights into how the findings relate to existing research, we spoke with James S. Jackson, Ph.D., professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and director of its Institute for Social Research. For more than 40 years, Jackson has been studying the racial and ethnic influences on American personal, social and community life, and growing heterogeneity of the nation’s Black population. Also a RWJF Investigator in Health Policy Research, he is currently directing extensive surveys on the social and political behavior and mental and physical health of the African American and Black Caribbean populations.

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