Alison Mariella Désir on Running, Race and Making Change
You may have heard that running is the easiest sport to start. All you need is a pair of running shoes and you can conquer the road! Runners are a welcoming bunch, and bonding over shared miles can form friendships that outlast even the most durable pair of running shoes.
But for many people, the running community hasn’t always felt so welcoming. Alison Mariella Désir is working to change that. “I felt like I had to share my story of what it feels like to be part of this sport that everyone says is so accessible and non-judgmental. I had to tell the story of what my experience has been like with running, and what other Black and Brown people have experienced,” Désir says, who is releasing her first book, Running While Black, in October.
A Running Start
The daughter of two immigrants, Désir started running as a child, competing in the sprinting and hurdling events in high school. She walked onto the track team at Columbia University, but felt she didn’t have the intensity required to compete at the collegiate Division 1 level.
After graduating Désir began working as a paralegal, but didn’t find the work meaningful. She felt confused and uncertain about what the future held and, after her father was diagnosed with lewy body dementia, struggled with depression and anxiety.
“I fell into this depression, and that's when I saw my friend training for a marathon. That really changed the trajectory of my life,” she says.
Désir felt inspired by her friend and, next year, signed up to run the same race – the Rock n’ Roll San Diego Marathon.
“Training for the marathon gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me the discipline that I had forgotten I had. It gave me a plan and a really concrete way of changing my life,” she says.
Désir threw herself into marathon training, attending group runs and raising $5,000 for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through Team in Training. By the time the marathon rolled around, her passion had been ignited. She realized that she wanted to share that passion and love for running with more people.
Spreading Her Message
Désir wanted to find more people to run with, but quickly noticed there weren’t any running groups where she lived in Harlem, New York, and all of the running groups that did exist were mostly white. In November 2013, a little over a year since completing her first marathon, she started Harlem Run.
“At first, I just wanted more Black people to run with,” she says. “Through the process of building Harlem Run I started to see how running was changing the lives of the people who were attending, just as it had for me. There was a shift in the neighborhood because folks in the streets were seeing people running. We were creating this culture of movement in Harlem that hadn’t been there. It didn’t start as activism, but that’s what it became.”
Harlem Run is now a well-established group offering weekly group runs including pace groups, from 7-minutes-per-mile to walking. The group has come a long way since its inception in 2013, thanks to Désir’s dedication and consistency.
“I showed up for about four months every Monday all by myself, even when people weren’t coming, in the hopes that people would show up. Being consistent with your message and your purpose is what leads to great things,” Désir says.
Although Désir wasn’t thinking about activism when she started Harlem Run, she found herself spearheading a movement pushing for more equity, diversity and representation in the running community. She has a natural talent for connecting with others, and used that talent in 2016 when she organized a run, Run 4 All Women, from Harlem to Washington, D.C. ahead of the Women’s March.
“The idea of using running for social change really connected with people around the world. There were many women who felt that marching wasn’t something that necessarily resonated with them, but running and using their bodies in that way was powerful,” Désir says.
Run 4 All Women has since raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocate for causes including reproductive rights, voting rights and Indigenous rights. Désir has passed the torch along to other women who now lead the group.
“I’ve realized that I have a really special talent of bringing people together, getting people excited and united around a cause and taking collective action. It's cool to be able to build that and then watch it take place without me,” she says.
In addition to creating Harlem’s most popular running group, organizing social justice events, training for her own races and starting a family, Désir has been working to create meaningful changes within the running industry.
In October 2020, the Running Industry Diversity Coalition was launched by several key players in the running industry, Désir being one of them. The coalition aims to make the running industry more welcoming to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). This includes highlighting BIPOC voices and creating more opportunities for BIPOC to hold leadership positions in the industry.
“We wanted to create an organization that would hold the industry accountable to address racial equity,” Désir says. “Why are most CEOs of running brands white men? Why are most of the retailers white men? Why are most event organizers white men? How do we ensure that Black and Brown people have access to these opportunities? How do we ensure that Black and Brown people feel welcome and safe at our events?”
After what Désir describes as a series of tough conversations, the coalition was able to establish a strategic plan with targets to ensure equity throughout the industry. Désir says the ultimate goal is to create industry leadership that accurately represents the diversity of the country and of the running community as a whole.
Two years after the birth of the RIDC, Désir says she feels hopeful about the work being done. She also wants to ensure that other Black women are given the same opportunities she’s had.
“I feel really lucky and I also know that a piece of it is my drive, my ability to connect with people, and a lot of privilege. I’m a person who believes that if you have privilege, it's your job to share your gifts with other people,” she says.
Désir is sharing her gifts by hosting a retreat in her new hometown of Seattle, Washington this September.
“The retreat is for women and femme of color who work in the running industry, alongside a planning committee that includes incredible leaders and innovators,” she says.
Registration for this first of its kind retreat, called Take the Lead, will open in a few weeks. Keep an eye out on their Instagram page for more information.