More than 150 Echoing Green Fellows gathered in Joburg for the 2015 All Fellows Conference to refine and re-energize their leadership. Here's what we learned.
GirlTrek Follows in the Footsteps of a Civil Rights Legacy
Bold Idea: When Vanessa and Morgan started to walk for change, they realized they were doing more than building a women’s health organization—they were tapping into a narrative much larger than themselves.
2013 Echoing Green Global Fellow Morgan Dixon first began distance walking because she wanted to compete in a local 5K. But soon walking for Morgan became more than just exercise: walking became a transformative and inspirational experience. She remembers, “Something happened when I started to walk. The pace of the world slowed down, and on my walks I began to heal. I felt transported, like I could finally let my shoulders down and breathe. Vanessa and I started GirlTrek because we wanted to walk to heal ourselves. It helped us—and we wanted to bring as many sisters along as possible.”
With four out of five black women overweight and fifty-three percent morbidly obese, GirlTrek is aimed at defeating this health crisis. But employing the act of walking, a culturally poignant tactic with roots in civil rights history, was not a strategic communications or branding tool. Morgan and her co-founder Vanessa Garrison saw it become integrated into GirlTrek’s mission and methods naturally.
“In the beginning, we started to notice the stories being told about generations of black women—mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers—and we connected with those stories and drew inspiration from them,” Morgan recalls. “We don’t use this larger narrative of the Civil Rights Movement as a strategic tool. This movement feels like a civil rights movement, because it’s risen as a direct result of this country’s civil rights history.”
Embracing Their Own Narratives
GirlTrek’s use of walking campaigns and grassroots organizing is an extension of Vanessa and Morgan’s own personal journeys towards finding better health, better lives, and ultimately inspiration. Walking is what centered them, what encouraged self-reflection and self-love. But without honesty and a look at the bigger picture, Vanessa contends, it’s not meaningful: “It’s important to give yourself permission to find inspiration in the tragedy of your story and the tragedy of the stories of those around you or those who came before you. Morgan and I have been brave and honest around the obstacles we have overcome and have yet to face as part of a community of black women. Personal testimonies of triumph have been really important in shaping our organization and how we live our lives.”
Inspiring a Movement
Morgan and Vanessa recognize the crisis facing black women and girls is a deeply rooted one—one that requires collective action. Morgan describes GirlTrek’s model of change as: “people power. When I think of people power, I close my eyes see images of women walking on the sidewalks of Montgomery in the bus boycotts. I see women crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. GirlTrek is re-establishing walking as a transformative tradition in black communities. It is an effective solution to the current health crisis because it is simple, replicable, and rooted in a larger narrative of social change. For participants, it's bigger than personal fitness—it’s a call to action to serve as health leaders." Theirs is a movement not merely based on civil rights history, but derived from it, inspired by it, and galvanized by it.
In the last year, Vanessa and Morgan have successfully channeled the inspirational power of this larger narrative through themed walking challenges. Last October, GirlTrek hosted a National 40-Day Gratitude Trek, which rallied church leaders and celebrated the power of prayer. Seven thousand women participated in that trek. And earlier this year, on the centennial of Harriet Tubman’s passing, they called for women to walk for 100 minutes at the same time on the same day. About 15,000 women were inspired and participated in this “We Are Harriet” March.
The women and girls of GirlTrek are today’s Harriet Tubmans, they say, finding their ‘freedom’ and then going back to lead others to theirs. Vanessa explains, “We believe that, as women, we are going to have to liberate first ourselves and then come back and be examples and liberate our families…If Harriet Tubman could walk herself to freedom, we can certainly walk ourselves to better health.”
Morgan and Vanessa have realized the importance of self-love and introspection in leading wholesome and inspired lives. Morgan explains: “We are constantly pep-talking ourselves, because if we’re not inspired we can’t inspire others. It’s all about energy, gaining energy and then paying it forward. And we get constant inspiration from the field, stories from women that have started walking with GirlTrek, and it’s built this dynamic experience of constant shifts between who is the inspired and who is the inspirer. Inspiration has everything to do with being authentic and finding your authentic voice. It’s about a willingness to be vulnerable and open. And it’s about telling your story from an authentic place, letting your energy transform your story into one that resonates with people.”
Be Bold: Think about what drives you and your work, and whether your inspiration taps into a greater narrative or movement. Consider how this perspective can offer new motivations or opportunities to increase or accelerate your social impact.
— Echoing Green (@echoinggreen) August 21, 2013
Bringing about dramatic and lasting social change requires lifelong leadership and learning lessons along the way.
One clear way to drive change is to invest in leaders who have a direct connection to the communities they serve.