Vanessa Garrison brings message of empowerment to black women

Vanessa Garrison of GirlTrek delivers the 2016 Ann Niles Active Transportation Lecture Oct. 19 at Portland State University.

Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of national walking movement GirlTrek, gave the Ann Niles Active Transportation Lecture October 19 at Portland State University. Her simple, powerful message has mobilized more than 75,000 black women and girls since 2011 to start changing their lives and their communities for the better.

“Change starts with one woman,” she said. That is GirlTrek’s change theory: start with one woman, and there is a ripple effect.

Every time one woman is inspired by GirlTrek to commit to a daily habit of walking, so the theory goes, she can begin to motivate her friends, family or neighbors to walk with her and the movement gains another focal point around which to build momentum.

It's about health, but so much more.

In improving her own health, each GirlTrek walker gains the strength to effect other positive changes in her world.

With a group of women walking together every day, the neighborhood becomes safer. Then, depending on the needs of the community, more change begins to evolve. Are there safe sidewalks? Does traffic speed down the streets of the neighborhood? Should there be more destinations to walk to? What forms of social injustice can be addressed at the local level? These are questions that GirlTrek staff members love to help trekkers answer.

“Whatever it is that a women needs, to go back into her community and create change, we help bring her there,” Garrison said. Making use of its vast network, GirlTrek provides education and resources to help women effect that change.

Though the movement is securely grounded in research, its primary purpose is not to collect data or support a hypothesis. The purpose is much more personal and direct: to improve the lives of black women and their loved ones.

Garrison hailed Bree Newsome, who in 2015 shimmied up a 30-foot flagpole and removed the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, as an embodiment of one of GirlTrek’s most fundamental statements:

"We are the ones we’ve been waiting for."

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