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Meet the Woman Bringing Running to Chicago’s Underserved Neighborhoods

Dominique Sabbs of the Chicago Area Runners Association is stepping up to help foster community for runners where it wasn’t before.

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Dominique Sabbs started with Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) as a program manager in September of 2020 and already the community has felt an impact from her grassroots style of engagement. 

“When it comes to running, it’s very diverse,” Sabbs says. But the city of Chicago is very segregated. According to a 2018 Brookings survey it was the third most segregated city in the country between Black and white communities specifically, behind Milwaukee and New York.  

“It doesn’t seem like that’s changing any time soon,” says Sabbs, “especially when you have housing issues and job issues or whatever the case may be. When it comes to the running world, we can be all together, but yet we are not very inclusive.”

Sabbs was tasked with creating running groups in Black and brown neighborhoods, while also keeping the ‘Go Runs program—a weekly free timed 5K and mile racegoing throughout the city. 

“When you go up North, you can have a few Black people who run up North, but it’s like, will they still talk to you if they came out South to your side of town?” she asks. 

So far she’s helped launch three successful running groups—the Austin Running Crew on the west side, Marquette Park Run Crew on the southwest side, and the West Loop Run Crew downtown. “They are actually very different, which is teaching me different ways of being a community activist more than what I was before,” she says.   

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Sabbs has been known to go out and recruit runners (and non-runners) on the street to fill the groups and bring people together.

“We want to reach people who would love to do this, but they don’t know where to start. So you’re not going to always meet runners. You’re going to meet a lot of the time walkers when you’re trying to get people from that community. It’s getting people who, they want to be healthy, or they are facing health issues and they don’t need the pressure of running a pace or running. They just want to step foot out the door, get off the couch and be active,” she says.

New Runners Welcome

A running crew in the Austin neighborhood specifically was much needed, says Lovie Twine. Before, Twine, who has lived there for over 40 years, would often run in the neighboring Oak Park area or by the lakefront. “That’s where runners run,” she says.

But why couldn’t she step out her front door and go for a run? Many of the Black women she knew from running would travel from the Austin community to other neighborhoods every week to run. 

As a community of nearly 100,000 people used to being in the news for its high crime ratings, Twine wants people to know that it is a good neighborhood where good things happen. “If you look at the news anytime any day, you’re going to hear about Austin,” she says.

“I’ve been saying it would be nice. I hear other people say it would be nice if we can just go out our back door and run with the community to attract other runners,” says Twine.

As Twine describes, Sabbs does not wait for change. She listens to what the runners she meets need and goes out and makes it happen. “The thing is we needed someone that was encouraging. We needed someone that knew really how to help people run. And more important, we needed someone that looked like us,” says Twine.

But Twine notes that the new crew isn’t for her or the women who were already running as much as it is for the community and the would-be runners. “It was for the Austin community,” she says. “The lady that’s looking out the window or sitting on the porch and sees us run down the street.” When they would run elsewhere, there was no visibility to inspire their neighbors. Austin Run Crew—ARC for short, is meant to be a bridge to the community. 

austin-run-crew
Photo: Courtesy CARA

In the Marquette Park Run Crew Sabbs enlisted the help of runners she knew from Men Run Deez Streets and Black Chicago Runners to help her get to know the area and recruit runners for the new group.  

“What I see is that people, in the beginning were very shy, but now it’s like more people and more people come in to our group and I see that they feel more comfortable and everybody enjoys it,” says Andres Herrera of the Marquette Park Run Crew.

Herrera would like to inspire people the way Sabbs has. “My goal is to get more people together,” he says. 

Creating Opportunities

In answering the call to support more of the BIPOC communities, Sabbs is able to lend a hand better because she’s in tune with what’s going on. “I live in a Black community. I’m still dealing with individuals that I help on an everyday basis when it comes to homeless or any other barriers that we may have,” she says. 

Before joining CARA, she was a volunteer with Back on My Feet—a running initiative meant to help people experiencing homelessness become independent. When helping young people released from prison get back on their feet, running could be used as a metaphor for setting and achieving goals (like getting a job then saving up for an apartment).  

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Her earnestness in wanting to help is why people are drawn to her running groups. “She’s super positive,” says Sara Shojaee who helped start the West Loop group. “She just wants to foster community.”

Sabbs has also kept up ‘Go Runs, which is a unique series of free events that move around the city from weekend to weekend. It’s particularly alluring for families, allowing them to race together without busting their budget on fun runs. And it removes a huge barrier for people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone out to run, says Sabbs. Runners can return to the timed 5K and mile races every week and see how their fitness has grown, another encouragement to continue with the sport.  

Making running a more inclusive sport is a hot topic right now. Making it happen in a place like Chicago seems even harder. “It takes more than ideas,” says Twine. “It takes commitment.”

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