Angela White was a new director of program faculty and admissions for the American Studies Program at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002. She needed canes to walk. Struggling with debilitating fatigue, she left her job in 2007.
She did some online teaching “to maintain some sense of purpose,” struggled with depression and soon needed a walker. Housebound, she began to gain weight. By 2011, White, who is just under 5-foot-4, weighed 364 pounds. She was 43 years old.
Before she got sick, White said, she had an active life. She was a single mom, performed in a dance troupe at her church and juggled seminary study and missionary work.
“I realized in 2012 that I could remain stuck or do something about it,” she said. “That I had two-thirds of my life ahead of me. I got tired of feeling like life was passing me by.”
That’s when she met Vanessa Garrison, the founder of GirlTrek, a walking group for African American women, and her life changed.
White started walking — with her walker. At first, it was slow going: 30 minutes to go around one block. But within six months, she was going farther and faster — and had lost 50 pounds. Today, she walks five miles most days — still using a walker. She is 185 pounds lighter, and she says she feels more confident.
There were no fancy diets, equipment or facilities involved in White’s weight loss. In fact, all she needed was a pair of shoes and motivation.
GirlTrek was born out of concern for the health and lives of black women. Membership has grown to 80,000 nationwide, and today black women are walking daily, according to Garrison and GirlTrek’s co-founder, T. Morgan Dixon. Like White, other members of the group say the GirlTrek experience is life-changing, not just because of how it helped them shed weight but also for helping them feeling more empowered generally.
Garrison and Dixon met during college 18 years ago, when both were supporting themselves working 40 hours a week as assistants at an investment banking firm. They quickly discovered their similarities: Both grew up poor and were raised by extended families dealing with many problems. Both were the first in their families to go to college, far from family. “It was like we were trailblazing for our families,” Dixon said. “It shows a lot of what we have in common: to try and go out there and get our best life.”
They supported each other in trying to keep a balanced life amid crazy work-college schedules in a new place where for the first time they encountered people living very wealthy lives.
Over the years, they talked about issues that many black women face — poor communities, work that’s hard to find, having to support their families and the bad health choices that can be made when there is no time to think about yourself. And because their own lives were good — with husbands and successful careers — they began to think about how to help other black women get healthier and improve their lives overall.
“Neither of us were ‘into fitness,’ but both of us were on a journey to live our healthiest, most-fulfilled lives. And both of us found that walking was a great place to start,” Garrison said. It felt powerful and, at the same time, meditative.
More than 80 percent of black women are overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly half of them have hypertension and 13 percent have diabetes, and they die of heart attack, hypertension and stroke at higher rates than other women.
“The root cause is not feeling like you are worth taking enough time to care for and exercise your own body. And so what we did is we started walking — and telling people about it,” Garrison says in a video intended to energize other women.
And so they started walking, at first one day a week, eventually every day. While walking in their neighborhoods — Dixon eventually in New Jersey and Garrison in Washington — others would see them and join in. They organized a 10-week walking challenge and spread the word to friends through email. Then as now, the goal was to start with just 30 minutes a day and then increase it as stamina increased. They made the video, created an inspirational Facebook page and talked to anyone who would listen.
In a world where people are often isolated on their computers and phones, they found that the connection of walking with others was powerful.
Today, 80,000 women have signed on to GirlTrek, forming walking groups in New Orleans, Houston, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington. First lady Michelle Obama has featured GirlTrek on her “Let’s Move!” blog and former surgeon general Regina Benjamin has joined the board.
Among its adherents is Ellen Gardner, a teacher. Overweight, frustrated by her sedentary ways and worried about her health, she heard Garrison on the radio one day talking about GirlTrek’s mission and how black women needed to make time for themselves.
Eighteen months ago, she started walking, first just around her immediate neighborhood in Loudoun County but eventually to her church, a half-mile from home. She says she has lost 25 percent of her body weight by walking at least 30 minutes on weekdays and one to two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. Her son and husband often join her, and her mother and aunt are walking as well. The children she teaches joined a 100-mile club, with the goal of covering that many miles in a school year.
“Black women feel like we have to solve everyone’s problems and bear everyone’s burden,” Gardner said. “GirlTrek encourages people to look at themselves and say, ‘I am important.’ Sometimes walking I am all by myself, sometimes I am listening to music, sometimes I am crying or letting off steam. It’s all time to get into who you are.
“My girlfriends and I joke. We walk, no matter what — even when its 27 degrees. We are very committed.”
For Gardner, the healthy-living message of GirlTrek is important: “You have to look at the whole picture. It’s great to be walking. But when is the last time you went to the doctor? What are you eating? Feeling?”
Garrison and Dixon note that walking has been a healing tradition for black women for a long time, citing abolitionist and ex-slave Harriet Tubman, who, GirlTrek’s website says, “walked our nation to freedom” through the Underground Railroad, and the many women who walked miles to and from work during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the 1950s.
It is even more important now, Dixon says: “We are actually going to take time for ourselves every day — to pray, to meditate, to go on walks, to take runs, to be in love, to laugh, to do things that are not necessarily a priority when you are struggling in life.
“We are going to make it a top priority, and we are going to talk about it. And to have a friend to do it with gives you permission and gives you a little more boldness. Then you have [80,000] friends, which GirlTrek is now — and it makes you super bold to do that.”