On Caring for Black Women by Walking: An Interview with Carla E. Harris

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Carla E. Harris, community care director at GirlTrek. Harris was a full-time volunteer for three years before joining the organization. 

Harris found GirlTrek when searching for a volunteer opportunity to honor the anniversary of her mother’s death. “My mother died at 53. Every year I’d find an organization to volunteer with. One year GirlTrek held a marathon – and they hooked me with the words:  ‘Aren’t you tired of losing your aunts too soon?’ Yes! I was good and truly hooked. I absolutely adore walking. I started leading walks. My group here in Atlanta grew so fast, the founders came down to see what I was doing.” 

Can you tell us about GirlTrek?

GirlTrek is an “overnight” success that’s been many years in the making. The movement began way back when our co-founders T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison were taking a walk. They were agonizing over why their mothers, sisters, and aunts were getting sick and dying so young – in their 40s, 50s, 60s – from wholly preventable diseases. They realized that Black women’s lives are overflowing with stress, obesity, bad food, poor health care, injustice, trauma, and grief. Also, Black women take better care of others than we do of ourselves.

They kept walking and started getting other women to walk. Walking is the most available exercise for women in all economic brackets, and research shows that a daily 30-minute walk can be all the exercise it takes to save your life. Walking outdoors introduces a spiritual component. It encourages the mind and the spirit to set down their burdens and relax. 

Girl Trek was officially founded in 2010. Today, the organization has over 800,000 members and has evolved into the largest international health movement for Black women and girls. Our goal is to reach 1 million trekkers in 2020.

What is your job at GirlTrek?

My work at GirlTrek doesn’t feel like a job!  I call it “love work.” 

I joined GirlTrek as a volunteer for many years.  From the beginning, my role has been to see that the community is cared for – to make sure that when a woman engages with GirlTrek, she encounters a caring voice.

How has GirlTrek been impacted by COVID-19?

Before the pandemic hit our shores, we began developing the Sisters Keeper Support Hotline, a self-care lifeline. But the program has become vastly more important in recent months. 

Sisters Keeper is a group of volunteers available to accept calls from women in the GirlTrek community. They include doctors, therapists, and other health experts who take calls from women dealing with a range of issues: isolation, loneliness, domestic abuse, suicide. These “crusaders” are certified by the Mental Health Foundation of America and trained to navigate women to wherever they need to go to get help. 

We know the difficulties Black women have with seeking therapy and other mental health care. We didn’t want a cookie-cutter program. Recognizing that the needs of our community are different we built it ourselves.  We ask each crusader to serve for at least a year.

We want to equip women to be changemakers.  I describe the crusader role as “sisters keeper meets freedom fighter.”

The GirlTrek crusaders are slowly creating a network of community health workers that can become a safety net model for Black communities across the globe. This is what GirlTrek is ultimately all about: community care as an act of radical resistance. 

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s August 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Black women are living our healthiest and most fulfilled lives and being changemakers in our communities because like Oprah said about GirlTrek; “Some of the most potent seed planters and change-makers are Black women.  The world is changed when nations are changed and nations are changed when cities are changed, and cities are changed when communities are changed, and communities are changed when individuals are changed.”

How can Black women get involved?

There are so many ways to get involved with GirlTrek! Register for #BlackHistoryBootCamp. It’s free, but registration is required.  Listen to our #BlackHistoryBootCamp podcast.  It has exceeded 465,000 downloads and is available at Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Buzzsprout.  If you are ready to lead a group of trekkers, check out our field guide, How to Lead a GirlTrek.



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