'GirlTrek' Leads the Way in the Fight to Improve Black Women's Health

Black women suffer from preventable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers at higher rates than other groups, but a Washington D.C-based nonprofit is working to change that. GirlTrek isn’t a fitness organization; it’s a “holistic, health movement,” says Jewel Bush, a representative of the group. The movement began in 2010 with the goal of healing Black bodies, inspiring young women, and transforming communities.

Since then, the organization--fueled by the work and passion of a team of 20 Black women--has continued to combat the nation’s health crisis by encouraging “radical self care,” and motivating Black women to get active. Online calendars and nationwide events give over 170,000 Black women in 2,500 cities across the country to commit themselves to walking regularly, whether it be solo, or with a group. GirlTrek believes walking is the first step to leading a healthier lifestyle, and developing new traditions that can be passed to future generations.

While GirlTrek strives to prevent premature death among Black women, the movement is not confined to enhancing physical health but instead provides multi-layered healing for Black women.

In 1962, Malcolm X famously described Black women as the most unprotected, disrespected, and neglected group in America. More than fifty years later, these words remain dismally true. Black women remain highly vulnerable to a variety of health-related issues. “One-hundred-and-thirty-seven Black women die every day from preventable illnesses,” says Jewel. This statistic supports findings in studies on race and gender-related health disparities. Black women are more likely to suffer from heart disease and heart failure than white women, and are also disproportionately affected by obesity.

Jewel believes that cultural factors may contribute to Black women's historical struggle with physical health. Women in the Black community are dedicated to “taking care of everyone else” and may even “feel guilty” for spending time taking care of themselves,” she says. “We’ve been socialized to prioritize the needs of other people over our own.” GirlTrek is working to counteract this narrative by reinforcing the importance of self care. “We’re telling women that the first step to be a better partner, to be a better employee, to be a better mother, is to make sure you are OK.” “Self care is not selfish,” Jewel adds, “You cannot pour from an empty cup.”

For busy Black women who want to invest in personal health, the time commitment required to reap physical benefits facilitates the goal. According to Jewel, walking “just 30 minutes a day” can significantly improve physical health. Trekkers use online calendars to coordinate meetups for women of all ages and ability levels. This degree of community and diversity creates what Jewel calls an “intergenerational sisterhood.” We have “mothers walking with daughters, women walking with other women.” This model defies commonly held stereotypes of Black women being too antagonistic to work together as a team. People think “Black women don't work well together,” says Jewel. The GirlTrek community is fighting back.

“We are Black women, working together to help improve the lives of Black women.”

Trekkers also celebrate the powerful Black women of the past, often calling on the names of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and the thousands of Black women whose names remain unknown, for strength. “We look at their lives, and we say their names. We walk in that lineage,” says Jewel.

Although GirlTrek focuses primarily on encouraging women to become committed to walking regularly, Trekkers take this challenge to the next level. “Women will take that first step by getting into walking and then say, ‘well I would like to run a marathon, I want to get into biking, I want to explore vegan and plant-based eating for my family,’” says Jewel.

The organization’s positive yield overflows beyond the boundaries of a traditional health organization. The movement is committed to creating generational changes in the Black community by encouraging the development of new, healthier traditions. GirlTrerk seeks to replace less positive cultural traditions with practices that boost physical and mental wellness. As fitness becomes more normative, “it wouldn’t be odd for a Black family to go on a walk, it wouldn’t be odd for a Black family to go on a hike.” Trekkers also have a positive impact on their surrounding communities. Walking events have served as audits for communities in need, as women often take note of damaged sidewalks and broken street lights along certain routes. These findings are communicated to local government for improvement.

GirlTrek also equips women with the tools to lead themselves and their families towards healthier lifestyles. “We have nutrition programs, we train women to be mental health first aid ambassadors,” Jewel explained. The group even gives Black women the tools to open businesses by producing certified nutritionists and yoga instructors through a variety of partnerships.

Women interested in joining GirlTrek, but who are unaccustomed to exercise regimes should not feel intimidated. The organization “embraces women of all ages and body types,” and remains sensitive to the fact that Black women are carrying a lot of “emotional weight.” Even its T-shirts are made to accommodate a variety of curvier body types. Black women are so heavily inundated by disparities in health that the typical African American woman will likely live a shorter life than Americans of other races.

The organization serves a community in need--not just of healthy habits, but of understanding. Jewel encourages Trekkers to “start where you are,” and reminds women that the organization serves as “an accountability community and a source of motivation.” Prospective Trekkers can join GirlTrek’s robust and growing community of Black women and girls for free by taking the pledge on the group's website. Women can also find more information about the upcoming Labor Day weekend retreat in the Rocky Mountains. Registration remains open for the third annual #StressProtest weekend, dedicated to self-love and sisterhood. GirlTrek is set on achieving a membership of 1 million women and girls by 2020. Of the organization’s tight-knit, community, Jewel says, “we don’t leave a sister behind.”

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.