When Morgan Dixon was just beginning her professional career, in the Teach for America program in Atlanta, she heard the statistic that half of all black women in the United States are likely to develop diabetes. They also suffer disproportionately from hypertension and obesity. In this Teach for All video she says she looked out at her classroom full of black girls and thought, ‘What the heck are we doing about it?’
Years later the idea found her. Dixon wanted to run a 5K and began her training by walking. She also began to realize she suffered from undiagnosed depression, “The kind that made me harder than I wanted to be, meaner than I should have been,” and she handled it by “working too hard for praise and money.” But the more Dixon walked, the more her depression lifted, and her aspirations took off. In this “health story” that she produced herself she says, “something happened when I started to walk. The pace of the world slowed down. I started to heal.”
Eventually Dixon and her college friend Vanessa Garrison joined forces to see if they could convince friends and family to get moving too. Dixon had spent years organizing for education reform, and Garrison had experience launching social media campaigns. Together they developed GirlTrek in Washington D.C., a program that encourages women to walk 30 minutes a day in their neighborhoods across the country. More than 100,000 women have now signed up to make that commitment.
GirlTrek is cultural and spiritual as well as physical. The program recognizes that many black women share a deep emotional pain that the medical profession hasn’t tackled. They drew inspiration from their forebears. “Walking for change is not anything new for black women,” says Dixon. She thought about Harriet Tubman who walked herself from slavery to freedom in 1849, returning many times to rescue others; and she thought about the Montgomery bus boycotts of the 1950s, when black people walked rather than riding segregated buses. Walking, the two friends realized, does even more than provide health benefits, it builds community. “Walking through pain is what we’ve always done,” Dixon told the audience at TED this year, where she described her mother’s experience walking into a desegregated school, “Changemaking is in my blood. It’s what I do. This health crisis ain’t nothing compared to the road we have traveled.”