Every Sunday in Seward Park, a group of women in blue shirts lace up their sneakers and stride around the peninsular green. On such mornings, music, dance, laughter and sometimes tears electrify the sleepy atmosphere. The walkers gather here weekly to participate in a public health movement, called GirlTrek.
Since its founding in 2010, GirlTrek has mobilized Black women and girls to walk as a demonstration of collective hope and healing. Black women are burdened with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, stress and trauma than any other demographic in the United States. GirlTrekkers reclaim physical, mental and emotional wellness for themselves and their communities by building healthy habits with outdoor activity.
“Women are coming to GirlTrek because they are isolated and alone,” says Vanessa Garrison, the Seattle-born co-founder of GirlTrek. “The first step of GirlTrek is to build intentional community. Then, it is to have courageous conversations about what we are experiencing as Black people, and be solution-oriented with our conversations.”
Garrison had to personally reckon with the early deaths of relatives due to preventable health conditions. Her grandmother passed at age 66 of a heart attack; two of her aunts died before the age of 60. In the last year alone, Garrison returned to Seattle for the funerals of two cousins. “I calculated the average life expectancy of the women in the immediate family. It was 66,” she said.
These close family losses, along with the daunting statistics on obesity-related diseases in their immediate community, compelled Garrison and her college friend, T. Morgan Dixon, to challenge the Black women and girls in their network to walk for 30 minutes a day. That was 11 years ago. GirlTrek has since become the largest public health organization in the United States, with over 1 million active members and almost 600 Trek chapters across the nation.
The Seward Park chapter of GirlTrek is led by Trina Baker and Mikia “Myke” Marvin, both 39, who have co-led their local movement since 2015. “Spreading love and showing up” is the core intention behind most of their programs, Baker says. Along with their Seward Park events, the team “would also plan Saturday walks where we would go through Rainier Avenue, say hello, and introduce ourselves to the Rainier community. We did a lot of footwork,” Baker says.
Those who come to Seattle GirlTrek often find a respite from their daily stressors, especially at a time where “more than two-thirds of Black women have little to no leisure time,” said Garrison in a PBS NewsHour interview. The GirlTrek collective has also supported individual members through deeply traumatic life events. The story of Chalet White, 46, affirms the GirlTrek movement as a sisterhood of mutual care and support.
“I stumbled upon GirlTrek while reading articles about Sandra Bland,” says Chalet, who goes by Shaka. “There was this picture of her with all these Black women, and they were wearing GirlTrek shirts.” Shaka met a team of GirlTrekkers and hiked Yosemite National Park in 2015. There, she crossed paths with co-founder Garrison. Shaka became a regular attendee at Seattle GirlTrek programs over the next year.
During the same period, Shaka’s autistic son started to demonstrate increasingly erratic behavior. “He would go to the park, which he did all the time, and come back with no shoes or no shirt.” Shaka pleaded with therapists to treat his apparent psychosis. “They told me that, because he posed no immediate physical threat, there was nothing they could do.” Shaka was forced to manage his worsening state alone.
In late 2017, Shaka’s son suddenly went missing. GirlTrek quickly organized search and rescue parties across King County. “I was averaging 14 miles a day on the Cedar River Trail,” Shaka says, “just trying to find him. GirlTrekkers were also looking in downtown Seattle and Burien.” He turned up in California after 13 days. Despite his new diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, mental health providers still dismissed Shaka’s concerns regarding the severity of her child’s illness. “This person he was becoming was not my son,” she said. “He was drinking, smoking, cussing. He was never that kind of person. Things were just escalating.”
After another year of institutional neglect, Shaka’s son assaulted her with a knife in a state of paranoia. She sustained more than 40 stab wounds. Shaka managed to escape with her life; her son served a few months’ time for the crime. Now 23 years old, Shaka’s son resides in a state-led psychiatric facility. “And he’s still not getting the help he needs. I wish there was more help for mental illness, before something bad would happen,” Shaka shares. “I knew something bad would happen, I just didn’t know it would be that, or that it would be me.”
GirlTrek carried Shaka through her healing process. “I don’t think, if I hadn’t found GirlTrek and done my own self-improvement with trauma therapy, then I don’t know how I would have come back from it. The PTSD, depression, panic attacks.” Shaka says. “The day I left the hospital, I wore a GirlTrek shirt for more than 60 days in a row for inspiration and motivation.”
She continued to show up at Seward Park on Sundays, even throughout the extreme highs and lows. “GirlTrek held sister circles, prayers, and people were always checking in. I know I can always call, text, or walk with any of them.” Shaka ended up walking a total of 300 days that year with GirlTrek.
For Black women, trauma is borne through generations, like a relay race where sustaining breath becomes more draining at every turn. Shaka’s story is one of many in which Black women have been left to their own devices in a violent system which denies their truth. For folks like Shaka, GirlTrek is a place for grief to be held, understood and healed. It is also a means of making solutions from the margins, for it is Black women who have dealt with the deepest and most affecting issues of our current society.
For Garrison and Dixon, shared conversation is a strategy for working through Black trauma. The two record “Black History Bootcamp” podcasts, which act as walking meditations to Black history. “The healing that we are talking about is soul healing, is collective,” says Garrison in an episode on the Tulsa Race Massacre. To speak of such horrific events, according to her and Dixon, is to reckon with the pain of generations and to transmute it for love. Other episodes trace the footsteps of Black revolutionaries, including Harriet Tubman and Alice Walker, or cultural icons such as Zora Neale Hurston, linking GirlTrekkers to long traditions of resilience and resistance.
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” wrote Audre Lorde, the self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Garrison revisits these words often during “Black History Bootcamp.” Within them is an unshakable knowledge: Institutions built to break Black and brown womxn will never be the fighting grounds for true liberation. Collective resistance is created by forging our own connective links which break past the bonds of ingrained prejudice.
Members of GirlTrek have taken up the mantle of aid and activism within their communities, too. Multiple city chapters, including Seattle’s, have organized to address cycles of inequality which perpetuate across health, housing, school and prison systems. Grandmothers, mothers and aunts of GirlTrek have coordinated walks to perform urban trash cleanup, change neighborhood infrastructure, protest gun violence and even honor civil rights history.
For Baker and Marvin, leaders of the Seward Park chapter, one of their nearest projects is in collaboration with the Washington Trails Association, among other municipal programs. Their purpose: to bring Black women and girls into the mountains, lakes and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Baker and Marvin design programs to educate their underserved demographic on camping, hiking and outdoors exploration skills. “I started hiking in my 20s. I never went outside of Seattle, I never knew any of this existed when I was growing up,” Marvin shares. Baker agrees. “I was born and raised in the PNW, but never did the outdoors before GirlTrek. Now, I explore everywhere. I just went boogie boarding in Westport. I’m loving the activities I’ve never been able to do in my life.”
Grown from Seattle roots, GirlTrekkers all around the country are rising up and getting outdoors to celebrate the power in their physical health. “We have some women who started walking halfway around the block but now are walking half-marathons. Up mountains. Even repping GirlTrek during chemotherapy, or stage 4 kidney failure,” says Garrison.
The impact of GirlTrek has been palpable to its branched sisterhood, and as more Black women occupy streets, sidewalks and paths with their glorious momentum, that impact will only grow.