Morgan Dixon was tired.
By most accounts, she’d made it. After working her way up in the education reform movement, she’d done stints as a vice principal and director of leadership development for one of the largest networks of schools in New York. But as her work in education went on, she’d watched smart but squirmy black kids get marked as “problem” students. The cycle exhausted her and she became disillusioned. She often felt like her job as an educator was simply to maintain the status quo.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she recalls. “Unless we can have a radical shift in culture, then nothing an institution can teach our children is going to be adequate to liberate ourselves.”
Dixon started to realize that part of the problem was connected to the oversized burdens society puts on black women. More specifically, she started to see that many of the black women raising her students were so exhausted, drained and burnt out from the business of simply surviving that they were unable to model anything other than perpetual survival mode. “Unless kids have role models of what it looks like to thrive and be healthy and be joyful, nothing else matters,” she explains.
In 2010, Dixon quit teaching and co-founded GirlTrek with her friend Vanessa Garrison. Today it’s the largest public health nonprofit for black women and girls in the country. But it’s more than just a women’s workout group. GirlTrek views the physical and mental well-being of black women as linked to social change, and trains black women to organize walking groups as a first step to inspire healthier families and communities. Through walking teams, women are able to mobilize their communities to support advocacy causes. They rally for access to green spaces and safer and more livable neighborhoods. By investing in the health and wellness of black women and girls, they’re also investing in the labor of black women as movement builders.
“Starting with culture change seemed like a more humane way to liberate people than demanding our children sit still and act like nothing is wrong,” she explains.
Self-care can sometimes seem like a bit of a buzzword these days, conjuring up bubble baths, pedicures, spa days and other luxuries. But for black women, self-care is an urgent need. We die younger and at higher rates than any other group of women in this country from preventable diseases. We face higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and maternal mortality. We face higher rates of mental health issues like depression. All the while, cultural attitudes about “strong black women” as stoic superwomen who can do it all can keep us suffering in silence.
Showing up at work as our full selves can also be fraught for black women. For the Harvard Business Review, writer and MBA candidate Maura Cheeks surveyed black women in corporate settings and found that suppressing our authentic selves can sometimes feel like a job requirement. “It’s not uncommon for black women to feel like they have to make others feel comfortable when they’re in a group (especially if that group is made up of people who look nothing like them). The women I interviewed talked a lot about having to dampen aspects of their personality to feel like they could fit into the culture of their workplace,” Cheeks writes.
Dixon says this pressure only adds to the mental and physical burden black women face, and it’s something she works to actively combat with GirlTrek. “It’s having to look a certain way, talk a certain way or dress a certain way to be considered valid and worthy. All those kinds of pressures break you. They’ve broken our mothers. And we’re saying they aren’t going to break us.”
Dixon knows because she’s lived it.
“The most widespread form of violence in our society is the violence against black women’s worth. We even exert that violence against ourselves through the stress we put on ourselves to succeed. I only know because I’ve done it. I’ve worked way too hard just to prove I am worthy of being in a room. I was overachieving, even in a room full of other black people, just to prove my worth every day,” she recalls.
That’s how Dixon discovered the transformative power of simply taking a walk.
“Something happened when I started to walk. The pace of the world slowed down. I started to heal. I became more aware of my body, more aware of the world around me. When I walked I felt transported,” she writes on the GirlTrek website.
Dixon’s ultimate goal with GirlTrek is to eventually help one million black women feel that same rejuvenating energy, and harness it to inspire change in communities all over the country: “Once a million black women are present and centered, we’re going to be the most powerful force in this country.”
Bridget Todd is a writer, podcaster, and activist. She’s the co-host of the podcast AfroPunk Solution Sessions and founder of Unbossed Creative, a creative studio that uses storytelling in service of social change.