GirlTrek is one of the largest public health nonprofits for African-American women and girls in the United States. Instead of putting their activities on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, their organization found new ways to connect members and keep them physically and mentally healthy during difficult times.
GirlTrek encourages African-American women to use walking as a practical first step in creating healthy families and communities. As women organize walking teams, they also rally community members to support monthly advocacy efforts and lead a civil rights-inspired health movement. When COVID-19 hit, however, GirlTrek had to put their walking programs on hold for a time. But instead of simply canceling the events, GirlTrek adapted their organization to help members stay physically and mentally healthy while in the midst of a pandemic.
“Our mamas braided battle plans into our Bantu knots and passed down survival secrets that have kept us alive in the face of real danger for centuries,” said Vanessa Garrison, GirlTrek Co-founder. “We leaned into that knowledge to make adjustments to the GirlTrek 2020 season in light of the coronavirus threat.”
GirlTrek started its 2020 trek season earlier than the April 1st original deadline with a solo 30-Day Jumpstart challenge of 20 walks in 30 days. Every person who completed the jumpstart challenge received GirlTrek’s special edition golden shoelaces that say #1MILLIONby2020. The organization hopes to use volunteers across America to inspire one million people to mobilize in 2020.
“As the coronavirus spreads across the nation and world, and anxiety and fear rise, I am here today with a message sent straight from the ancestors,” said Garrison. “Do not fear. You were built for this. These are trying times, yes. But 400 years of waging war against a system that was designed to break us has prepared Black women to not just weather the storms of today, but to be the leaders, and the beacons of light, that the world desperately needs right now.”
When in quarantine, GirlTrek created a 30-minute-a-day indoor challenge for fitness and mental health. They made everything at home accessible for their members and transitioned from in-person fitness and wellness classes to virtual meetings. Since many outdoor activities are on hold to comply with the COVID-19 health guidelines, the organization also created a list of 100 self-care acts for women to complete daily.
“GirlTrek is inspired by Black women throughout history who left us a blueprint for survival,” said Garrison. “And yet, here we are. The #DaughtersOf women who wouldn’t even let us enter the kitchen, let alone open the fridge, without washing our hands. Who knew that the common-sense, sage advice, and regular ritual of Black grandmas everywhere would become the number one weapon in a war against a pandemic that has sent the world into a panic?”
In addition to fitness and mental support during these challenging times, GirlTrek also established an emergency fund for members who are facing monetary hardships. They set aside $100,000 to support trekkers who need financial support. With the fund, they can provide a limited number of three to five emergency grants each week until November 30th. For the majority of applicants, grants will not exceed $1,000 per member.
Once the pandemic began, people were isolated in their homes for months, but GirlTrek continued national communication every week. Whether it was through virtual fitness classes, wellness calls, or social media, GirlTrek members stayed informed. The organization even started a support line that is available seven days a week, which allows members to talk in a safe environment and have their spirits uplifted.
This year, GirlTrek relaunched the #BlackGirlJusticeLeague, the largest voter mobilization effort led by Black women, to rally the “political power of Black women” in the 2020 presidential election. The goal of this movement was to concentrate on voter education, voter registration, and voter support on election day in the most vulnerable cities across the United States. From September through November, the organization assisted members in checking their voter registration status and helped others register to vote. When the program first began for the 2016 presidential election, 50,000 people from across the country mobilized by walking to the polls.
“We’ve watched the country explode with rage and take action as the coronavirus and violent racism collide,” said jewel bush, GirlTrek’s Chief of External Affairs. “Even in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, we did not let this prevent us from casting our ballots. Our democracy is strongest when everyone’s voice is heard. That starts at the polls, but in order to participate, you have to be registered.”
GirlTrek currently has over 930,000 members and led the largest voter mobilization effort by black women. The past months for GirlTrek focused on health and wellness as usual, but #BlackGirlJusticeLeague became the main topic of discussion among their members.
“Early voting, either in-person voting or through absentee ballots, is a critical tool to protect the freedom to vote by breaking down barriers to the ballot box and increasing civic engagement,” said bush. “It shortens wait times for voting on Election Day and reduces burdens on polling place officials. The November election is imperative—it not only determines our next commander-in-chief, but also the local and state officials who will lead our communities. We must have a say in who they are. We could not sit this out. We have a right and responsibility to make our voices heard. This matters now more than ever before.”
GirlTrek is more than a walking club. It is a community built around advocacy, civil justice, and African-American women. The organization’s efforts have made a tremendous impact on its members within the last year. Their programs during the pandemic provide members with physical and mental health benefits, social involvement, and civic engagement. Although large walking events and bootcamps aren’t happening in-person right now, GirlTrek finds ways to support its members during this challenging period.