‘They welcome us’: Diverse running clubs attract more to sport – The Christian Science Monitor

‘They welcome us’: Diverse running clubs attract more to sport  The Christian Science Monitor

Running clubs: In Boston, an effort to include everyone – CSMonitor.com

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Runners with the Pioneers Run Crew who’ve already finished their run cheer for those crossing the finish line at Castle Island on July 6, 2022, in Boston.

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At a recent meetup of members of Black Men Run and Black Girls Run! in Boston, organizer Jeff Davis asks the group why they showed up. Peace, gratitude, freedom, joy, and love are some of the responses. 

The runners take a moment to remember those who came before them: ancestors; enslaved people who ran from those who enslaved them; Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while on a run. “We run because they can’t,” Mr. Davis says. 

These clubs are among several in the area working to change perceptions among community members, many of whom did not grow up in an environment that fostered distance or recreational running. Leaders aim to create opportunities that offer camaraderie and allow more people to feel the freedom and release that running provides.

“When people see us running down the street, people know who we are and they welcome us,” says Sidney Baptista, founder of Pioneers Run Crew. 

Back at the joint event, a girl in a bright red shirt is sprinting alongside her father as she finishes her 5-mile loop in the Dorchester neighborhood. As the young runner crosses the finish line, arms raised in victory, Black Girls Run! leader Katonya Burke exclaims, “That’s it! There goes the next generation!” 

Boston

When Sidney Baptista took up running almost a decade ago he knew he would need to find a daily route somewhere other than in his own neighborhood in Boston. 

The tightly knit Cape Verdean community in Dorchester was home, but it didn’t offer the companionship of other runners. He would instead lace up his shoes and head to more affluent parts of Boston, like the Back Bay, Cambridge, and along the Charles River to practice his hobby. It became an escape, a gift for the mind, soul, and body, he says. And yet, the more he ran, the more he realized it didn’t make sense to shuttle to different neighborhoods just to run a few miles. When he tried to invite his friends and family, they always turned him down.

“People around me were like ‘What are you doing?’” he says. So instead, he brought the run to them. 

Mr. Baptista launched the Pioneers Run Crew in 2017. Since then, he and his “team captains” have encouraged hundreds of new recruits and expanded a network of runners from diverse backgrounds throughout Boston. His group is one of several in the area working to change perceptions among community members, many of whom did not grow up in an environment that fostered distance or recreational running. Leaders aim to create opportunities that offer camaraderie and allow more people to feel the freedom and release that running provides.

“When people see us running down the street, people know who we are and they welcome us,” Mr. Baptista says of how far his group, with its brightly colored gear, has come. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Sidney Baptista talks with runners on July 6, 2022. Mr. Baptista launched the Pioneers Run Crew in 2017. Since then, he and his “team captains” have encouraged hundreds of new recruits and expanded a network of runners from diverse backgrounds throughout Boston.

Only 4% of respondents to a 2020 survey by Running USA identified as Black. Athletes of color often steer toward basketball, football, and track in the hopes of “going pro,” Mr. Baptista, an entrepreneur and community organizer, says in an interview in his office in Dorchester. For many people in the neighborhoods he works with, long-distance running doesn’t hold that promise. He adds that national social inequalities and redlining have forced people of color to live in neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure, including properly maintained sidewalks, to support outdoor running. Safety – from traffic and sometimes crime – is also a concern. 

Fear can also be an obstacle to running for Black people, says Katonya Burke, an ambassador in Boston for the national group Black Girls Run! They are sometimes concerned that they don’t have the right gear, or time, or people to run with. “The first step is to just do it, get out there and do it … it’s the courage and dedication to start that matter,” she says. 

Ms. Burke, along with other running advocates in Boston like Mr. Baptista and Jeff Davis, who founded the Boston chapter of Black Men Run, are working to change the views that keep people away.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Runners with Pioneers Run Crew stretch before an evening run on July 6, 2022.

At a recent meetup between Ms. Burke’s and Mr. Davis’ groups in Dorchester, Tiffany Gayle Chenault, a sociology professor at Salem State University explained the importance of representation in running as she and a Monitor reporter chugged down a hill.  

“When people think of runners, they don’t think of people who look like us,” says Ms. Chenault, who has studied gendered racism in white running spaces. When Americans think of runners, she says, they think of the East Africans who participate in and often win the Boston Marathon, or suburban white people exercising in their neighborhoods. “They don’t think of people who look like me.”

She says visibility is a way to address that. “It’s important to see other people who look like you breaking the barriers.”

Ms. Burke, of Black Girls Run!, is known in Boston’s Black running circuit for her joyful enthusiasm and ability to get even the most reluctant to hit the pavement. If people are able to relax their thoughts around running, it will be an easier and more fulfilling experience, she explains.

She knows something about resilience, as a truck driver, the single parent of a teenage son, and a six-time marathoner. While she has a running coach who supports her, she values the connections she has made through Black Girls Run! “I have lots going on in my world,” she says. “The ladies are a safe space. They allow me to see that I am not alone.” 

This community support is happening in the city that is home to the Boston Marathon, one the oldest (first held in 1897) and most famous running events in the United States. While women and people of color are increasingly among the throngs of amateurs who cross the finish line, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) has only been collecting the racial demographics of its participants since 2021, says Adrienne Benton, who was recently the first woman of color to be appointed to the organization’s board of governors. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Runners with Pioneers Run Crew take off together. Several groups in the Boston area are working to change perceptions among community members, many of whom did not grow up in an environment that fostered distance or recreational running.

The BAA is making a conscious effort to curb the social inequalities that dissuade people from running, says Ms. Benton. Through its Boston Running Collaborative, the BAA has brought together existing organizations that support disenfranchised communities. 

Local running organizers often emphasize that the camaraderie and shared experiences around running provide avenues for self-care. “Health and wellness in the Black community are not things we talk about enough,” says Mr. Davis of Black Men Run. “Especially mental health.” 

The summer of 2020 was a turning point for Mr. Davis. The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor left him feeling enraged. Around the same time, he had to lay off 20 people from his company because of the economic downturn during the pandemic. “I was an emotional mess,” he says.

Then his wife suggested he participate in a community run. He enjoyed it so much he decided to organize a local chapter of Black Men Run. It’s a space where Black men can be together, support each other, and be themselves, he says. Every week they meet is an opportunity to grow together.  “As long as we wake up and we’re Black, we run.” Mr. Davis says. 

Chris Ajuoga/The Christian Science Monitor

Jason Boyd (right) runs up Ashmont Street with his daughter Sekai Boyd in the final stretch of their 5-mile loop with the Boston chapters of Black Men Run and Black Girls Run! in the Dorchester neighborhood on July 9, 2022. Once a month the two groups meet for a run through a predominantly Black neighborhood in Boston.

At the recent meetup in Dorchester of his crew and Black Girls Run!, Mr. Davis asks the group why they showed up. Peace, gratitude, freedom, joy, and love are some of the responses. 

The group then takes a moment to remember those who came before them: ancestors; enslaved people who ran from those who enslaved them; Mr. Arbery, who was killed while on a run. “We run because they can’t,” Mr. Davis says to the group. For these athletes, it’s more than what happens on the pavement, it’s everything that they carry with them long after the cool down.

About an hour and a half later, as the runners return to the starting point, a young girl in a bright red shirt, Sekai Boyd, is sprinting with her father Jason beside her as she finishes her 5-mile loop. Loud applause erupts from the sidewalk as the group cheers her on. No one is louder than Ms. Burke – not even Sekai’s brothers who are watching their father struggle to keep up, a broad grin stretched across his face.  

As the young girl crosses the finish line, arms raised in victory, Ms. Burke exclaims, “That’s it! There goes the next generation!”

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