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