The American healthcare system doesn't have a great track record with Black women. We're more likely to die during childbirth, our infants are twice more likely to die than white babies, and one study even found that half of white medical students think Black patients have less sensitive nerve endings, which leads to the medical establishment to not taking our pain seriously. It can be tempting to throw your hands in the air at these statistics, but health non-profit GirlTrek views it as a call to action.
Founded in 2012 by Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, the organization works to teach Black women about the health benefits of walking, to reclaim neighborhoods in the face of gentrification, and to make low-income communities in the U.S. more walkable as a step towards making wellness more accessible to Black women and girls.
"We recognize that Black women have the power to change our communities. We are the solution," Jewel Bush, GirlTrek's communication director, tells Bustle. "One of the things we like to say at GirlTrek," she says, "is that when women walk, things change."
Now, GirlTrek is spreading the word through a national tour called the Road to Selma, an intentional nod to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The tour launches on June 14 in New York City, and the organization will visit 50 cities around the country over a yearlong period to teach Black women how to become health activists in their communities and to get people moving. Teach-ins during the tour will focus not only on personal wellness and self-care, but also on community organizing and resistance. "We take into perspective gentrification, socioeconomic factors, 400-plus years of enslavement, [and] the muscle memory of Black women in our community," she tells Bustle. "We are able to look at healthcare and public health in a way that’s not just through the lens of medicine or science."
The fact that participants walk isn't coincidental. Much of the civil rights movement in the U.S. revolved around walking protests, and Dixon says in a press release that the organization is "re-establishing walking as a transformative tradition" as a response to the obesity rates of Black Americans, although Bush notes that GirlTrek is not a weight-loss program.
The organization is for Black women and run by Black women, which is instrumental. Black Americans don't trust the healthcare system, and to be fair, why should we? Dr. J. Corey Williams, writing for The Hill, reports that Black people are more likely to die of everything from asthma to cancer, which leads to Black people of all genders being reluctant to seek care in the first place. And that's not even acknowledging the ways that Black bodies have historically been treated by white physicians. In April, New York City moved a statue of J. Marion Sims, the "father of modern gynecology" who developed his medical techniques by experimenting on enslaved Black women without their consent, after community protests. In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks, who was Black, had her cancer cells harvested by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital without her consent. The New York Times says that "millions of dollars in profits have been made" from the findings her cells provided, but her family didn't find out about what happened for more than 20 years. The list goes on.
There is, for this and other reasons, a dire need for organizations that approach Black women's wellness from a holistic perspective, informed by this experience. That's why GirlTrek "comes at the work with a very personal connection," Bush says. The experts in the community haven't only studied women's health, but they often have firsthand experiences with the disparities in U.S. healthcare treatment. Bush tells Bustle the experience is often healing for the women who participate. The national tour will cause transformations in communities, she says, and women are already excited about participating in the movement. "There’s no doubt there’s going to be cultural change," she says. "We’re a grassroots public health movement."
GirlTrek's community currently stands at nearly 150,000 neighborhood walkers, according to their website, but the sky is truly the limit from there. "Our goal is reach one million Black women and girls," Bush says. And as their Road To Selma tour traverses the country, it's undeniable that that goal is well within reach.