This is a sidebar to our series Death’s Disparities, a series about the growing gap in life expectancy between rich and poor New York.
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Lifelong friends Sheila Gordon and Dionne Grayman don’t remember exactly when they came up with the idea for a women’s running group, We Run Brownsville–but they are sure of one thing: The group isn’t just about getting women in shape, it’s also a call to action. Gordon, who works for the New York Road Runners Club, and Grayman, who works to reduce school suspensions through restorative justice programs in public schools, believe that the best way to make change is to put the power in the hands of the people who need it the most.
What Kills New Yorkers
Mapping the leading causes of death
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“The name was intentional,” says Gordon. “This would be a running program, but [also] an advocacy program.” The long-term goal, she says, “is to have the women take on something in the community from the inside out that could affect change.”
While the idea of a running club as a vehicle for change may seem slightly far-fetched for some, Gordon and Grayman are nothing if not determined.
This past summer, starting with a grant from the nonprofit Brownsville Partnership and Brooklyn Community Foundation, the two women bought sneakers, water bottles, granola bars and jump ropes and solicited the help of a friend and elite runner to train a starting cohort of 22 women. For eight weeks, the women trained as a group twice a week on the track at Betsy Head Park in Brownsville, and each runner was to complete one additional day of training on their own during the weekend. The goal was to run a 5 K in East New York.
Their efforts were so successful that a second cohort started in the fall to train for a four-mile holiday race in Prospect Park. On Saturday, December 3, 15 women did the four-mile Jingle Bell Jog and Reindeer Run. It was no small accomplishment, says Grayman.
“We have women running who are obese. We have women running who suffer from depression. We have women running who have high blood pressure.” What unites all the women, says Grayman, is their desire for change. “There is an external narrative about Brownsville, that it is violent, that is it home to negative health outcomes, that it is the unsafest neighborhood in the city.” While elements of that narrative are true, it’s not the whole truth, she says: “We run the track to say the park is active and the track is in use and that although there are these negative health conditions that exist in Brownsville, there are people seeking to be healthy.”
Adds Gordon, “Collectively, they (the runners) are seeing their own lives transform. [An] example of that and how we know that is happening: One of the moms had her children there (on a group run day) and the kids wanted a soda. And she said, ‘If I can’t have soda, you guys have to stop having soda.’ As part of the running group, she can’t have soda. If we take those small steps like that, where we see a mom passing something down that will make her children healthy, this is worth doing.”