GirlTrek: Black Women Walking for Body, Mind and Soul
Jul 3, 2014, 10:21 AM, Posted by Keecha Harris
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.