Empowering Women to Get Healthy, One Step at a Time

Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon know a ton about fitness. Between the two, they’ve hiked, walked, biked, and run more miles than they can ever begin to count. But nine years ago, when the two college buddies founded GirlTrek, now the largest public health nonprofit for African American women and girls in the United States, their first thought was not how to get other black women outdoors and moving.

It was how to get them inspired enough to want to get outdoors and moving.

So, they set about to pair up walking— “the most practical, affordable, and accessible” exercise they knew—with messages of uplift, encouragement, support, and love. The result: 170,000 black women across the country regularly putting one foot in front of the other with joy, power, and purpose—with a heavy dose of community activism and healthy eating mixed in for good measure. They call it a kind of “civil rights movement for health,” and if it blossoms as Garrison and Dixon hope, the number of women trekking will surge to one million by the end of 2020.

The two women’s commitment to helping turn the tables for a population with particularly challenging health issues is one reason they received NHLBI’s Healthy Hearts Award earlier this year. Before presenting the honor at the Woman’s Day Red Dress Awards event in New York, NHLBI Director Gary Gibbons noted, “It’s not easy for even the best of scientists to figure out how to get thousands of people to form a habit that could change the course of their health—and especially their cardiovascular health.” But, he said, “Morgan and Vanessa have found a way.”

It took hours of deliberation, however.

“We kept asking ourselves how we could make exercise a