Months after Alison Mariella Désir founded her NYC-based urban running and community service group Harlem Run in 2013, she reached out to other leaders in the running community for guidance, support, and recognition.
But instead of help, the athlete-slash-activist was ignored or otherwise received a cold response, she tells Runner’s World. Désir attributed the unfriendly responses (or lack thereof) to the fact that much of the running community was—and remains—male-dominated. And that gender imbalance created other issues, like a lack of women leaders, decreased visibility for existing women leaders, pay inequity, and fewer brand opportunities for women.
So when Désir, 34, saw an Instagram post this past July by fellow athlete-slash-activist Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen about her struggles navigating the male-dominated running community in Berlin, Désir felt compelled to reach out. Nguyen is the co-founder of two run groups—WocForward in Brooklyn, and Wayv Run Kollektiv in Berlin.
“I read her post and thought to myself, this is not just a New York issue; this is a global issue,” Desir says. “We are all struggling to be seen, to be given opportunities, to be supported.”
From there, an idea formed: a group designed to empower and amplify women who are leaders in the running space. “Why don’t we have a network to support each other?” thought Désir. “Why should we continue to seek support/respect in a system that doesn’t give it to us? Why not create our own?”
Désir shared these thoughts with Nguyen in an email, which quickly morphed into a larger conversation involving two other women run leaders: Keshia Roberson, founder of Track Tuesdays in D.C., and Caitlin Phillips, co-founder of the Distance Project NYC. Together, the foursome talked about how they could bring Désir’s vision for a women-centric network to life. After several months of group brainstorming, those conversations culminated with the launch last month of a bold, new movement: the Global Womxn Run Collective (GWRC). [The spelling of “womxn” indicates the collective is for anyone who identifies as a woman—not just cisgendered women.]
Still in its early stages, the GWRC is “a collection of women founders and leaders globally that are here to disrupt the status quo of a male-dominated running culture,” Roberson tells Runner’s World. Here’s why and how they plan to do exactly that.
The GWRC aims to confront the absence of women leaders in the running community.
When the women decided to launch the group, Roberson, 32, conducted online research to understand how many women-founded run groups currently exist worldwide. The findings were eye-opening. “There were so many run crews started by men and it was so easy to find so many of them, but it was so hard finding the women-led crews that were out there,” she says.
Roberson also uncovered several groups that, when described by media outlets, only mentioned male founders, but after digging deeper, she learned the male founders were actually co-founders and their counterparts were women. “I don’t know whose fault that was, I don’t know why that was, but I do find that very interesting,” she says.
All told, she came across 60 groups around the world with women co-founders, and less than 15 of those were all-women founded, she says. “As I’m seeing more and more women runners, it’s like, well, where are the women leaders?” says Roberson.
The collective also wants to change what they see is a lack of respect, opportunity, and empowerment for and of women leaders.
Roberson, a running coach, describes people coming to her for advice on the sport (for example, guidance on track workouts) and then, after she shares her input, those people turn to men—who she says aren’t necessarily as experienced as her—and ask the same exact questions. “That has become very frustrating for me,” she says.
In the past year, Nguyen, 27, describes attending meetings with leaders of other running groups in Berlin to discuss how to come together as a community. But in those scenarios, she was the only woman among five or six men. On top of that, Nguyen says that she was the only person who even noticed the disparity. Being in that position felt disheartening, she says.
And Phillips, 37, remembers feeling cautious and nervous about starting the NYC Distance Project, an all-female running group. Is there space for this? she asked herself and the other women who would eventually be her co-founders. Does New York need this? She suspects most men in a similar position wouldn’t wrestle with these doubts.
The GWRC plans to add resources to their website to connect—and empower—women run leaders from across the globe.
Right now, GWRC is creating a directory of women-led groups around the globe. More women banding together will hopefully amplify women’s voices, empower one another, and amass support, says Roberson. The GWRC also aims to inspire other women—both runners and leaders—to create their own groups, crews, and movements across the world.
“I’m hoping that GWRC will provide a supportive place for founders and leaders, new and old, without having to seek approval and/or permission from men just because they have occupied leadership roles for longer,” says Désir.
To achieve these goals, GWRC plans to build out their website with links to the directory and various communication methods—like Instagram, a mailing list, perhaps a Slack channel—that will allow women to support and share resources with each other and also promote women-led initiatives and events. The hope is that these connections will inspire collaboration between women. Say, for example, a woman needs a photographer for a running-themed photo shoot in Cambodia. She could use the directory to connect with a woman photographer. Or, if a coach is struggling to get athletes of any gender identity to respect her leadership, she could use one of the communication channels to source advice from other women leaders.
In addition to online support, GWRC also plans to host in-person events on a quarterly basis.
And though the movement, at its core, is by and for women, Désir envisions men playing a role, too. “In order for women to achieve equal rights, 100 percent of the population must be supportive and that includes men,” she explains. “ At this time, we ask that men advocate for the work that we are doing—spreading the word about this new collective and our goals.”
It’s been six weeks since GWRC officially launched, and the movement is already gaining traction.
There’s a tab on the GWRC website where women-led run groups can be added to the directory, and so far, it’s yielded about 15 responses from crews in cities across the world, including London, New Orleans, Berlin, and San Francisco. Earlier this month, the collective also held their first in-person meet-up—a 5K run, panel discussion moderated by Désir, and networking event—on marathon weekend in NYC. About 60 people attended, including Sally Bergesen from Oiselle and Martha Garcia from HOKA ONE ONE, who served as panelists alongside Phillips and Nguyen.
Ultimately, Phillips hopes the GWRC will spark conversations that go beyond the sport. “We need systemic change, and I think that’s pretty obvious to everyone, and it’s not just within running,” she says. “It’s in every echelon of life, so I do think that using something like running does have the power to help amplify and shift things.”