Two Years After Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder, the Running Industry is Slowly Changing
A lot of promises were made to make running a more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming sport. How much progress have we seen?
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Almost two years ago, thousands of people around the world vowed to “finish the run” in memory and in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man from Brunswick, Georgia, who was murdered on February 23, 2020, by three white men who chased him down in a pickup truck and shot him while he was out on a run.
It was a call to action for the running community: Dedicate 2.23 miles on May 8, 2020, what would have been Arbery’s 26th birthday. Post it on social media. Use the hashtag #IRunWithMaud. Do it again on February 23, 2021, to mark the one-year anniversary of his death. Finish the run he was unable to.
Some called it “an awakening” among the mostly white people who participate in American distance running recreationally or as elite-level athletes. It had occurred to so few that runners of color face threats and fears any day they step outside to train, that they often didn’t see themselves reflected in the sport or welcome in its spaces. Running has always been advertised as “accessible to all.” Arbery’s murder was a senseless and tragic way to learn (or be reminded) that it has never been safe for everybody.
“This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact. They chose to target my son because they didn’t want him in their community. They chose to treat him differently than other people who frequently visited their community,” said Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, after Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan were sentenced in January to life in prison. “And when they couldn’t sufficiently scare or intimidate him, they killed him.”
On Tuesday, all three men were also found guilty of federal hate crimes for violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him because he was Black.
Alison Mariella Désir, a runner, activist, and mental health advocate who lives in Seattle, was the first to question the silence among runners after the circumstances and a video of Arbery’s murder became public. She was the first to ask why nobody was talking about it and why the sport’s media wasn’t covering it. She was the first to call on white runners to consider their privilege, to understand the concept of systemic racism and how it pervades not just society at large, but the running experience for all.
RELATED: Alison Mariella Désir Continues to Push the Running Industry to Be Better
“It is time for white people in the running community to take each other to task in spaces and rooms where there are no Black people or other people of color,” Désir wrote in 2020. “If you, as a white person, ever find yourself in a place where everyone is white or mostly white—including at your workout—then there is a problem and you are perpetuating it.”
Her points were heard by a lot of runners. Since then, some initial steps have been taken. Apparel and shoe brands have acknowledged that their advertising, sponsorships, and support have lacked representation, and many have started to include more diverse athletes. Media outlets have featured more runners of color on their covers and their pages. Companies that serve the running industry have improved efforts to hire Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Advocates for racial justice and equity within the sport have emerged. And new organizations, like the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, have supported much of the work.
“There is a feeling that there’s more of a shared language and a recognition by many people in the industry that Black, Indigenous, and people of color may have different experiences than they have as white people,” says Désir, author of Running While Black (coming in October; available now for pre-order). “There are certainly people who are still in the dark about that, but there’s a feeling that at many brands, that they’ve begun to grapple with these issues. They at least have an awareness. As a Black woman…I’m not speaking to people who are completely lost.”
But an awakening? A reckoning? Not quite. At least not yet.
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Chris Lampen-Crowell, founder of running retailer Gazelle Sports in Kalamazoo, Michigan, says when he learned of Arbery’s murder, he committed to doing “something.” But he, like so many other runners, wasn’t sure where to begin. He called his friends, a group of fellow retailers, and they agreed—they, too, wanted to do “something.”
“The problem was, we were all white,” Lampen-Crowell says.
The group connected with Désir and Verna Volker, founder of Native Women Running, and eventually the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC) was created and launched in October 2020. Its mission is to “provide resources, measure progress, and hold the industry accountable to equitable employment, leadership, and ownership positions and improve inclusion, visibility, and access for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” Its biggest funders include Brooks, On Running, Saucony, New Balance, Altra, and Smartwool.
Désir, who is also the director of sports advocacy at Oiselle, and Lampen-Crowell now serve as the RIDC co-chairpeople—and they agree that getting RIDC underway was challenging at first.
“It was actually very difficult conversations, to begin with. There were a lot of language barriers and a lot of hurt feelings,” Lampen-Crowell says. “We had to get to a point of trust and it took us a while.”
Words like systemic racism, white supremacy, and white privilege were stumbling blocks for the group, mostly because the white members were uncomfortable with the concepts or didn’t understand the myriad ways they are intentionally and unintentionally perpetuated in running—acknowledging that also came with guilt and shame.
“There’s a defensiveness that happens before you dive in and find empathy for somebody else’s lived experiences,” Lampen-Crowell says. “We still have differences, but we come together because we built trust over a long period of time in talking through these things and being willing to be uncomfortable.”
The RIDC is hiring its first executive director, and Désir says that so far, one of the biggest successes of the organization is “having a group of board members create trusting cross-racial relationships to set the stage for the work.”
“We can call people out, we can check each other when our way of thinking or doing things isn’t appropriate,” she says.
For example, Désir says that last fall, board members had proposed that a panel of Black, Indigenous, and people of color speak at The Running Event trade show, the largest conference for running retailers in the country, about diversity initiatives in running.
“I said, ‘No, you’re not going to put a bunch of Black people on a panel and make us share our emotions in a space that can’t hold what we’re saying,’” Désir says. “That’s exploitative and emotionally manipulative—there’d be no action steps.”
Ultimately the panel was moderated by Skot Welch, a diversity and inclusion consultant and author, and included mostly white participants who shared their struggles and the strategies that have helped them improve DEI efforts.
Back in Kalamazoo at Gazelle Sports, the store’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion has entailed making educational videos and resources available to staff, hosting mandatory workshops, starting a staff DEI book club, implementing marketing standards to ensure materials are representative of the diverse community, and beginning an ADA audit on the website. Gazelle has partnered with different running groups in the community as well, to support and amplify each other’s activities.
Lampen-Crowell has also recognized that as a white man in a profession that, nationwide, is dominated by other white men, he has a responsibility to invite others into running retail and ownership, as well as broader leadership positions within the sport and industry. RIDC is developing a database and talent pool to match interests and skills with mentorship and employment opportunities.
“Power shifting sounds super scary to people who have power, because you think, ‘You don’t want me here anymore,’” Lampen-Crowell says. “It’s not, ‘I’m stepping away and you’re stepping forward and I’m giving you power.’ It’s about sharing and elevating everybody…it’s a sense of abundance instead of a sense of scarcity. It’s additive. It’s not subtractive.”
Some of the premier running organizations in the country have also come to realize their responsibility in shifting the culture and inclusiveness in the sport. Take the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which is responsible for the Boston Marathon, for example. On February 8, it announced that Adrienne Benton had been appointed to the BAA board of governors—the first woman of color to serve in that role in the 135-year history of the group.
Although she lives in Boston, Benton didn’t have any connection to the marathon until a friend who had qualified for the race stayed at her house. Benton had a few immediate observations.
“It was a sense for me that these Black people BQ or raise a lot of money for charity, but they didn’t seem to be as integrated into the celebratory stuff that was going on. I didn’t get that sense that they felt that connected,” Benton says. “I was feeling like, hey, these folks should get celebrated and they need to know each other and have a place to get connected.”
Benton started running herself in 2014, encouraged by watching her sister finish a 5K. Since then, she’s completed six marathons, become a member of Black Girls Run-Boston and the National Black Marathoners Association, and has also taken the mic on Boylston Street as a marathon finish line announcer.
All the while, Benton wanted to find a way to bring Black runners together during the Boston Marathon weekend, so she started a pre-race event. That first year, in 2015, Benton ran into Tom Grilk, president of the BAA, on Boylston Street. She didn’t know who he was, but figured he was important based on his BAA-branded attire.
“I went up to him and I said, ‘I’m Adrienne Benton and I’m having a meet-and-greet with the Black marathoners. Are you with the BAA?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m the CEO,’” Benton says. “I introduced him to five or six Black runners right there on the street. I wanted them to see that they have access, you know? And I wanted Tom to know that these are runners, who are here in Boston, and they need to hear that you’re happy they’re here. And he greeted them very well.”
About 15 runners showed up to the new event—and it’s only grown since then, with special guest appearances from celebs like Meb Keflezighi, 2014 Boston Marathon champion. It’s created that sense of community and celebration among Black Boston runners that had been lacking for so long.
“Now folks get to acknowledge each other out on the course, because they’ve met at the meet-and-greet. Families coordinate with each other. It’s created a real catalyst for involvement in Boston. We have more Black people who sign up to volunteer, for example,” Benton says.
Through her efforts, Benton was invited to sit on a steering committee for the Boston Running Collaborative, a BAA initiative launched in September 2021 that wants to expand access to running and walking opportunities in communities of color. That work, along with Benton’s experience as a business leader and administrator, then led to her board appointment, she says.
It’s Benton’s belief that the BAA has taken admirable first steps toward reversing its long-held reputation as a stodgy and elitist organization—inaccessible and unwelcoming to many runners. Part of the process has been recognizing why that image exists.
“We came from a place that was very segregated, not just racially, gender-wise, but also socioeconomically,” she says. “There were tremendous amounts of disparity. I think the BAA has gotten to a point that it is acknowledging the past in order to reframe the future.”
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What is encouraging to Benton is the BAA’s willingness to give its platform, resources, and power to local organizations, events, and programs that serve the broader, more diverse communities in Massachusetts—a model that is easily replicated in other regions of the country.
“They have never shown a level of fragility. They listen to things the way they should be taking them in,” she says. “Things are moving in the right direction. Are they perfect? No. If they were perfect we wouldn’t be having this conversation about me being the first Black woman on the BAA board of governors in 135 years…but we’re all on the same page when it comes to prioritizing this.”
In a world with so many big issues at play—like a pandemic, for example, or inflation, or the supply chain problems—making sure that the industry and sport are keeping DEI and racial justice efforts at the top of its priorities is critical.
In June 2020, Russell Dinkins, a 2013 Princeton University graduate and five-time Ivy league champion, began a solo mission to save the men’s NCAA track and field programs that were on the chopping block at various institutions across the country. It started with an op-ed he posted on Medium, titled “Brown University, If You Were Actually Serious About Racial Justice You Would Not Be Cutting the Men’s Track Team.” In the piece he argued that sports like track and field give low-income students real pathways to educational opportunities and in the Ivy League, 65 percent of athletes are white.
“Brown is cutting one of its truly diverse sports while still keeping many of its affluent sports on the table,” he wrote. “Brown’s track team has more Black males than their lacrosse, baseball, ice hockey, and crew teams combined.”
His strategy worked—Brown’s team was saved—and Dinkins successfully replicated his efforts at other programs, too, including the College of William & Mary, the University of Minnesota, and Clemson University. But lately? He feels the momentum shifting, he says.
“There was a collective social appetite for some of the more racial justice-based arguments, but there’s not the same appetite for that now,” Dinkins says. “The nature of the work is quieter now. We’re not in the same social moment.”
But Dinkins also now has the resources and platform of the running apparel brand Tracksmith behind him, which helps keep him pursuing his racial justice work. At the end of 2021, Tracksmith announced that it had hired Dinkins as executive director of its new foundation. In the role, Dinkins will continue his work on the collegiate level while also spearheading programs that hope to offer younger kids more opportunities to give track and field a try.
“Our mandate is promoting track and field as an equitable sport and a vehicle for opportunities in college for Black men and women,” Dinkins says. “[Tracksmith] has given me the opportunity to help the kid whose name I will never know, to give that kid the same sort of academic opportunity I was so fortunate to take advantage of.”
The work of that foundation and other new organizations are the kind of initiatives that Benton sees as hopeful signs of progress in the two years since Arbery’s murder—a signal that more white people in the industry are invested in change. It’s the grassroots efforts, however, that will do the most to one day dismantle centuries of systemic racism.
“It’s the conversations we have sitting around the dinner table or on the front porch with our families and, in particular, white families,” she says. “As much as Black people, including myself, take on the burden of wanting to make change, it’s really not my change to make.”
Back in Georgia, lawmakers have passed a bill annually designating February 23 as “Ahmaud Arbery Day,” encouraging community members to once again walk or run 2.23 miles as a show of advocacy for racial justice. In conjunction, some running groups across the country will also organize fundraisers for the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation, started by his family, which supports mental health resources for Black boys. The foundation asks that the community “please take a moment on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 to pause for 23 seconds, say a prayer for Ahmaud’s family, and consider making a $23 contribution to the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation in his memory.”
The day will remain significant to runners as the years go by, but Désir hopes the nationwide running community will also think beyond the anniversary in the ongoing work toward making running a safe and welcoming place for everybody.
“Ahmaud has come to mean so much and he’s come to symbolize so much, but this work is about every person who doesn’t feel like they belong, who hasn’t been given resources or opportunity,” Désir says. “He was not fighting for racial justice on the run—he was running. We have to see the full humanity in him.”
Finish the run on February 23. But remember, the work is not done. Keep going.
Resources for Allies in Racial Justice
Want to help improve racial justice in running, but not sure where to start?
This list from Hoka is comprehensive. It includes people to follow, including Désir and Rachel Cargle, books to read (we’d like to highlight So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo), podcasts to listen to (such as the Pulitzer-winning 1619 from the New York Times), as well as causes to donate to and further actions to take.
The Outdoorist Oath is a new nonprofit from Teresa Baker of In Solidarity Project, conversationist/educator José González, and outdoor activist Pattie Gonia, that is hosting workshops on how to be a better ally for inclusion and the health of the planet outdoors.
The RIDC has a list of resources that includes their “BIPOC Database,” a list of professionals in the running space who are available for hire.