When Toni Carey’s sorority sister Ashely Hicks-Rocha, with whom she would later found the thousands strong movement Black Girls Run! (BGR), returned form a short run one evening, Toni’s reaction was something she had heard many times before – “Black people don’t run!” The reaction is only slightly less absurd than that of Toni’s mother, who once Toni had caught the running bug and began working up to longer distances warned Toni that too much running would cause her uterus to fall out.
Rightly or wrongly, cultural norms, urban myths, and old wives tales do get passed on through the generations and even as we might acknowledge their ridiculousness, they still continue to inform our actions. We all have ideas of what we can and can’t do based on things we’ve been repeatedly told and have seen, both through the media we consume and in our surroundings.
Toni says that the idea of representation is often taken for granted and for the longest time, “running was synonymous with the skinny white guy in short shorts.” She vividly remembers standing in the finishing area of her first 10K and not seeing any other runner who looked like her. This is precisely what BGR is fighting to change.
The backbone of the movement, Toni says, are the amabassadors across the country who share their stories through blogging and social media and are working to change the generational norm that has resulted in a majority of black women in America being classified as obese. “We want people who are super passionate and want to change the culture,” Toni says, adding, “These women know the empowerment that comes from running and want to pass their love on to others.”
Ultimately, the story of each ambassador serves as a counter to the notion that women of colour don’t run or that the sport is reserved for the skinny guy in short shorts. Toni says that simply being the change is the most powerful thing imaginable. Toni relates the story of a friend whose husband had been dealing with heart issues, saying, “The doctor can tell him anything, but I told her that she has to be the example.”
Toni herself never pressures family or friends into running. Sharing her story, whether in person or through social media, has far more impact. Toni laughs when she mentions that just by sharing her adventures in running through social media, even her mother has begun to log her own miles with all organs remaining in tact thus far. Passion, once again, proves contagious. If each of the more than 100,000 members of BGR across the US can have that impact, the generational change that Toni envisions will slowly become reality.
The story of BGR is another testament to a very simple fact highlighted by many with whom I’ve discussed the topic of diversity in running, namely that our easiest gateway into the sport is when those we trust and respect, those who share our own goals and struggles, lead the way. Additionally, when those leaders look like us, it becomes much easier to envision ourselves in a community. BGR is creating a very different image of running than many of us may be used to seeing, but more importantly one that many of the women she hopes to empower may not have seen.