Why Walking Is “Fundamental” Self-Care For This Community Organizer

GirlTrek co-founder Vanessa Garrison explains how and why to make it part of your routine.

Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of GirlTrek, explains how walking benefits wellness.
Courtesy of GirlTrek

In “The Level Up,” changemakers in the fitness and wellness industries tell us how they’re making an impact in their communities, from pushing for inclusivity to promoting body acceptance and so much more. Here, GirlTrek’s Vanessa Garrison talks about the role of community in promoting Black women’s wellness.

During the early days of the pandemic, walking around the neighborhood was one of the only ways people could go outside safely — so much so that feeling nostalgic for those outings after restrictions were lifted became a TikTok meme.

For GirlTrek, the largest national health and self-care movement for Black women, which promotes wellness through organized walks, 2020 accelerated its campaign “tenfold,” co-founder Vanessa Garrison tells Bustle. “Everyone was at home realizing how much they needed community. How powerful physical activity was for keeping mental health together.”

GirlTrek was founded by Garrison, ​44​, and T. Morgan Dixon, ​44​, in 2012, as a grassroots effort to build community through sisterhood. Since then, the organization has grown to more than 1.5 million registered trekkers and local organizers who come together in planned walks across the country.

Because the pandemic propelled GirlTrek’s walks, the organization offered more resources walkers could utilize on their own. First came a social media conversation series called #DaughtersOf, reminding listeners of the parallels between 2020 and the Civil Rights Movement. Then came a viral meditation podcast series designed for 30-minute walks, Black History Boot Camp.

“We knew that people were walking in isolation, but we wanted them to feel like they were in community,” says Garrison, pointing to the racial reckoning happening over the death of George Floyd at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. “GirlTrek was top of mind for people at a really pivotal time.”

With vaccine hesitancy still an issue in Black communities, GirlTrek is moving cautiously out of the pandemic but plans to continue advocating for Black women’s health and wellness through walking. Below, Garrison discusses ​what’s in store for the organization.

Tell me how your friendship with Morgan led to GirlTrek.

I come from generations of trauma and addiction. My mother spent almost a decade in prison. My grandmother had 11 children, and we all lived in a two-bedroom house. When I met Morgan in college, we were both seeking answers at that same vibrational level while dealing with the “Black girl blues.” We talked about how we wanted to create new visions for ourselves and saw no blueprint. And then we were like, “No, there is a blueprint!” It was Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker. It was all these Black women that came before us. And so, our self-care came in that form of tribe and sisterhood; our friendship saved our lives. That’s literally what we’re doing with GirlTrek — scaling Black sisterhood as a life-saving solution.

Has the pandemic shifted how GirlTrek plans to move forward?

We’ve been in a moment of pause, rest, and reflection, asking the women of GirlTrek, “What’s next? What do we do now with this collective power?” We want to go back to the basics of what GirlTrek does — inspiring people to start moving, grassroots organizing in the community, and advocating for the things that matter most to us.

We are kicking off this summer with Sisterhood Saturdays, a walking podcast live series. It will run every Saturday in July and August. People will get to hear me and Morgan unpack meaningful stories with themes around sisterhood, family, joy, and self-care. We have another podcast series coming out in the fall.

We will continue identifying Black women leaders in neighborhoods across America and training them to be GirlTrek organizers. And, in November, we’ll be doing what’s become one of our biggest campaigns ever: Black Family 5Ks — 25,000 Black families from across the country will host local 5Ks with their families the day after Thanksgiving.

Do you have advice for making walking more of a daily routine?

Think of walking as the best transportation from one place to the next. Don’t look at it as exercise. Instead, choose activities where walking enhances the experience. That’s how you make walking a daily habit and not a to-do. It makes it enjoyable.

At the heart of GirlTrek is organizing and social justice efforts. What top priorities are you focused on for improving health outcomes for Black women and girls?

We are not a movement that believes diet and exercise alone will transform Black women’s lives. Not when our school systems, our criminal justice systems, our health care systems are failing us. Not when Black women are making 63 cents to the dollar.

We’ve identified three root causes that keep us unwell: inactivity, isolation, and injustice. GirlTrek is already getting women active and into community, and with that last I, we think a million Black women could perform collective actions — tapping into our existing framework of grassroots campaigning — to eliminate everything that doesn’t support us.

I like that, the three I’s. But, before all of those elements unite, what specifically needs to happen or change to get more Black people engaged in health and self-care?

I am not putting that responsibility on Black people. The idea that we’re not interested in health and fitness is an absolute fallacy. Some statistics say two-thirds of Black women get little to no physical activity leisure time, but I say two-thirds of Black women ain’t got no leisure time. So we need to get more Black people time off so that they can practice fitness and health. We need to invest in their neighborhoods so that they got some shade to walk under, and they ain’t hot as hell. We need to get them more money so they can get some gym equipment and take a vacation. We are gods and goddesses. We need to be respected and supported.

When you find that time for restoration, to unwind, what’s in your self-care toolkit?

I love to run. I’m an adventure cyclist. I’ve cycled from D.C. to New York and all over the country. I did Mount Kilimanjaro in 2017. I do yoga every day. And yet, sometimes I don’t do sh*t because I’m tired as hell. I think, “Who was that woman on the mountain? I haven’t seen her in a long time.” So when I don’t know how to get back to that me, I just start with walking. It’s the core fundamental. I always have it in my toolkit.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.