‘We want to show our com­mu­nity that black women go run­ning too’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

Two trail­blaz­ing sis­ters have started an in­clu­sive group to make get­ting ac­tive eas­ier, writes Fad­umo Olow

De­scrib­ing one of their ear­li­est recre­ational run­ning ex­pe­ri­ences as be­ing amongst a “sea of white men”, sis­ters Denise and Ju­lia “Jules” Stephenson are de­ter­mined to ad­dress the lack of di­ver­sity in grass­roots run­ning.

Along­side their friend, Tro­jan Gor­dan, the three have formed a run­ning group: “Eman­ci­pated Run Crew”. Founded in Lon­don in Au­gust last year, the group known as ERC aims to pro­vide a com­mu­nity for black run­ners.

“We were talk­ing about the fact that when we did or­gan­ised runs, we didn’t see many black peo­ple at all,” says older sister Denise, aged 48. “Jules and I had started run­ning half-marathons and we no­ticed that no mat­ter where we went, whether it was the Hack­ney half-marathon or runs in Va­len­cia or Chicago – there were lim­ited num­bers of black peo­ple.”

“There was nothing lo­cal, ac­ces­si­ble or di­verse that we felt we could be­long to,” adds her younger sister Jules.

Both are now avid run­ners who re­call their re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence at the Vi­tal­ity Big Half with 20 oth­ers from their group as the em­bod­i­ment of black joy, with spec­ta­tors cheer­ing on in sup­port. An in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment for ERC who, within the last 12 months, have gone from three found­ing mem­bers to a reg­u­lar group of up to 40 run­ners and with the ad­di­tion of an ac­tive com­mu­nity on so­cial me­dia en­cour­ag­ing more black peo­ple to run.

Though their ex­pe­ri­ences as run­ners are now pos­i­tive, it hasn’t al­ways been so. In their late 40s, Denise and Jules fall out­side of the main tar­get age group for cam­paigns such as This Girl Can. Hav­ing com­pleted mul­ti­ple marathons across the globe, they pledge to shout from the rooftops about the need for di­ver­sity in grass­roots run­ning groups, and both are adamant that they will not tone down their au­then­tic selves. Cul­tural clum­si­ness on be­ing asked why they wear head­wraps, or be­ing asked – along stereo­typ­i­cal lines – as to why they are not as fast as other black peo­ple, are a few ex­am­ples of mi­croag­gres­sions they have faced.

The dearth in rep­re­sen­ta­tion is painfully ap­par­ent to 46-year-old Jules who re­calls an ex­pe­ri­ence of join­ing a lo­cal run­ning group and feel­ing alien­ated. “A lot of groups I’ve gone to band their run­ners ac­cord­ing to speed which is to­tally fine. But I was in the slow­est group and I felt like I wasn’t fast enough. There was no one look­ing out for me and I felt re­ally iso­lated,” she ex­plains. Based on this ex­pe­ri­ence they are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that ERC leaves no one be­hind and is in­clu­sive in abil­ity as well as di­ver­sity. “No one needs to feel like they aren’t fast enough. It’s giv­ing peo­ple that em­pow­er­ment that you don’t have to be fast, you just have to run free. You don’t need to com­pare your­self to any­one else,” says Jules. There is a safety el­e­ment too, un­der­lined by the tragic death of Ah­maud Ar­bery in Amer­ica, killed whilst out jog­ging in Ge­or­gia ear­lier this year. Both Jules and Denise ad­mit they err on the side of cau­tion. “No one has ever ap­proached us and said what are you do­ing here but we have had peo­ple stare at us, but I’m thick­skinned. To me, it’s the think­ing of ‘is it sen­si­ble as black women to go for a run in this place or this time?’ and we shouldn’t have to think like that,” says Denise.

The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has brought di­ver­sity to the fore­front with elite sport be­ing vo­cal in the drive for change. From Denise Lewis to Dina Asher-Smith, the con­tri­bu­tion and suc­cess of black women in elite ath­let­ics has been highly in­flu­en­tial in Bri­tish sport, mean­while Bri­tish Ath­let­ics has ap­pointed World sil­ver medal­list and Euro­pean 4x100m re­lay cham­pion Imani-Lara Lan­siquot as its ath­lete lead for its Equal­ity, Di­ver­sity and In­clu­sion Ad­vo­cates Group. Yet, rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the grass­roots level has been scarce and some­thing ERC is aim­ing to change.

“We would look through run­ning magazines and we found that we weren’t re­ally rep­re­sented. The im­age of the typ­i­cal run­ner was a skinny white per­son who looked like a typ­i­cal ath­lete,” says Denise, “and when­ever we [black women] were fea­tured – it was al­ways the elite ath­letes. There was no rep­re­sen­ta­tion of us as reg­u­lar black peo­ple who just love to run,” she adds in frus­tra­tion. “The Covid pan­demic has re­ally shown the in­equal­i­ties that BAME peo­ple face and part of hav­ing this run­ning group is that we want to en­cour­age BAME to be ac­tive,” says Jules. “It doesn’t mat­ter what your body shape is, we should also be al­lowed to run.”

The group’s mantra is to “run free” and men­tal health as well as phys­i­cal well-be­ing is at the core of ERC’s mis­sion.

“ERC is just say­ing to peo­ple in our com­mu­nity that black women run too,” says Denise. Jules nods, and laughs: “We might not run fast but we run free and that is enough.” The free­dom to run is more than enough for them both, and a bea­con of in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers.

‘A typ­i­cal run­ner in a mag­a­zine was a skinny white per­son’

Free run­ners: Denise Stephenson (left) and her sister Jules are be­hind a group en­cour­ag­ing more di­ver­sity in recre­ational run­ning

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