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The number of running teams for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) athletes has exploded in the wake of the running industry’s attempt to become more inclusive. As companies, race directors, and brands strive to be more diverse and equitable, they often fail to recognize continued tokenization of and limitation on runners of color—perpetuating existing cycles of racialized hierarchy.
Keshia Roberson, athlete and community organizer, describes the shift in consciousness over the last two years as the “great awakening.” While our bodies, voices, and communities have been marginalized, we refuse to let that narrative prevail in a sport that Indigenous athletes have pioneered for centuries. But many BIPOC athletes are working to flip that script.
As a Native person, I have advocated for equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and employment. My fight for equal rights extends to all sectors of society, including athletics, where for many of us, access to the outdoors intersects with environmental justice, gender equity, transportation access, and physical ability. When we advocate for our communities, we are also advocating for safe places for our physical bodies.
Two organizations that paved the way prior to the great awakening are Run 4 All Women, which empowers people to affect change through grassroots activism, and Melanin Base Camp, which increases awareness of minority contributions in sport. Since 2019, BIPOC outdoor organizations have flourished, notably the Running Industry Diversity Coalition and Inclusive Outdoors Project. These communities are challenging the industry in many different ways, yet are all firmly rooted in abolishing white supremacy in athletics.
We no longer want to be invited to your table. We want to build our own. BIPOC running groups such as Harlem Run, Pioneers Run Club, Angel City Elite, and Dirtbags Run Team have worked hard to build community and are now showing up to the start line with teams of their own.
Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running (NWR), launched her own team of Indigenous runners and is slated to run the Boston Marathon in April. Verna radiates positivity while juggling myriad projects and her personal life, whether she’s doing an Instagram Live from Target or a school drop-off. My favorite videos were from her days as a school teacher, when she’d share her “outfit of the day” while huddled in a corner using her inside voice during a quick break. An expert juggler, she built her following as a working-mother-runner who is deeply committed to her Native community.
Volker is Navajo from New Mexico, a HOKA global ambassador, mother of four, wife to an amazing husband, former second grade teacher, coffee lover, and the youngest of ten children. When she races, as she often does (distances up to 100k!) she likes to snack on Snickers and ice-cold Coke.
When I think of Volker, I think of the saying “be a good ancestor.” She is simultaneously changing the face of running while laying the foundation for future generations of Native women runners. She has an unqualified enthusiasm and authentic admiration for each of her athletes, her team, her crew, and the community that she built.
One thing is certain: Verna and her team are just getting started. Beyond Boston, they use running as a platform for representation, and real tangible change. I reached out to Verna to learn more about what inspired her to start the NWR team.
Guarina: When and how did Native Women Running start?
Volker: January 23, 2018. It was winter; it was cold. I thought, I’m going to start something.
I didn’t see myself in running magazines or social media. But I saw so many Native women running these amazing miles, so I asked a few Native runners if they would follow my account. There have never been paid ads, it’s grown organically.
G: You now have 28.2k followers. How many Native women runners have you featured since 2018?
V: I have featured thousands, definitely over 2,000 women on the page. Sometimes I highlight a runner, or I’ll reach out and ask if I can repost. Before NWR, there was no centralized place to share our stories. In 2016, I started to do research about apparel, podcasts, and magazine features, to see if Native women were included. Instead, I saw the same type of runner: white, blonde, thin . . . I thought, that’s not me. I couldn’t relate.
G: NWR began as a place to highlight runners whose contributions to running have largely been ignored. It has also become a place to advocate for issues impacting our communities. What issues does NWR focus on?
V: NWR creates awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. We hosted our first virtual event in 2019 and partnered with Red Earth Company. It was pretty simple. I thought, “Let’s wear stickers on May 5,” (the National Day of Awareness) and Dirk (of Red Earth) said, “Let’s go beyond that.” There was no official registration and we fundraised for the Urban Indian Health Institute.
2021 was a big year. I told my sponsor HOKA about the fundraiser, and they offered to support me. Over 3,500 people registered, and we raised $86,000 for MMIW USA. It was incredible. After that we partnered with a few Indigenous runners from Canada to raise awareness about the 215 Indigenous children found at the Indian Residential School at Kamloops, B.C. We hosted a virtual and in-person run to benefit the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. NWR raised $3,000 for that event.
G: Let’s jump into the next phase of NWR! You have a team, that is so exciting, tell me more.
V: Yes! NWR is registered for three races so far in 2022.
We just completed the first race, the Antelope Canyon 55k on March 12, in Paige, Arizona. There were seven of us; I ran as well.
Next, the big one is the Boston Marathon. We have two initiatives: We have a 4-woman team running Boston and NWR is also partnering with Wings of America. Dr. Lydia Jennings (Yoeme & Wixárika) and I are wearing the bib for Wings, and we will also be chaperoning the Native student-runners that Wings trains. The program trains Native athletes and provides pre-college support. (You can donate to our Wings fundraiser here).
The third race is the Javelina 100k in Fort McDowell, Arizona, this October.
G: What inspired you to create your own team?
V: The mission of NWR is simple: Representation. We do a lot of things—create community, raise awareness—but at the end of the day it is all about representation. The best way to put this into action is by showing up and being visible. My goal is to create teams around races and not have to wait to be invited or worry about being tokenized when we are invited. White supremacy in running is still very much a problem, so we have to take the lead.
G: Tell me about the 2021 Javelina 100k and your support team. I was so touched by the pictures and story from the event.
V: I had never met my crew in real life before that race. We knew each other on Instagram, and we all supported one another. These people came out and wanted to help get me through my 100k. It was incredible to have this amazing crew, my friends come out. Community is everything. The same crew came up to Antelope Canyon to support our new team.
Representation is not just about showing up but it’s also about coming together as a community. You put your words into action, it’s simple. That’s what I want to do, be there for my community because they are there for me.
G: Have you ever considered organizing your own race?
V: (Big laugh.) Yes. I am being cautious because of the pandemic and once things begin to clear up, I hope to create something locally here in Minnesota. I like to get things done, working behind the scenes is exciting. I was a 2nd grade teacher before this, so working with companies and CEOs is new. But over time, speaking about my lived experience has given me the confidence when I’m in these meetings.
All my siblings serve in our community, so it is instilled in me and it’s what motivates and drives me. My work is making decisions for thousands of Native women who are here with me. When one of us is hurt, we all are. When one of us wins, we all win. It’s community.
A note to race directors: If you want to be inclusive, support the community builders. Let us lead the way. We’ve always known what is best for us.
Guarina Lopez is a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Tucson, Arizona, and currently resides in the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Nacotchtank tribes in Washington, DC. Guarina is a visual artist, storyteller, trail runner and mother to a 13-year-old skateboarder. She is an environmental and Indigenous rights advocate whose life’s work is dedicated to sharing stories of the Native people and the land throughout Turtle Island. Her work can be found on Instagram at Native Women Ride, This Native Land, and Guarina Paloma Lopez.