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Finishing her first marathon in 2012 wasn’t just a physical accomplishment for mental health counselor Alison Desir; the process also helped her manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. “It truly helped me see the world with a new perspective,” Desir, 34, says. “For the first time in a long time I felt valuable and realized I could achieve really amazing things when I put my heart into it and stuck to a plan.”
That one transformative moment led to the start of Harlem Run club, which Desir founded in 2013, guided by her unshakable belief that running could change lives in her community—just as it had changed hers. After nearly six months of showing up every week alone (“no one showed up!” she recalls), Desir finally got her first few members, and now, they regularly have over 100 people show up on any given Monday.
What does Harlem Run mean to you?
What started as simply run club became a space where people could be vulnerable with each other, could push past their limits and challenge themselves, and feel part of a community in an otherwise lonely city.
You just started another ambitious project: The Global Womxn Run Collective!
Research has shown that women tend to show characteristics of transformational leadership more than men; said more simply, women leaders tend to value the collective over their own ego and work together to bring about results.
I created the GWRC after seeing a post that a friend of mine, Huyen, shared on social media. Huyen, who lives in Berlin, spoke of the difficulties she faced as a woman leader due to the male-dominated run crew leadership. I read her post and thought, hold on, this is not just a New York issue this is a global issue. We are all struggling to be seen, to be given opportunities, to be supported. Why don’t we have a network to support each other?
The goal of the directory we created is to elevate women leaders in the running community and make their running clubs, events, and efforts more visible and accessible. When we did our own research, we found 50-60 clubs ranging from Indonesia, Mexico, U.S., Germany, U.K., China, etc. So far, 15 leaders across the globe have reached out to have their clubs and organizations added to the directory. We want to elevate those voices.
What’s your advice for women who want a seat at the table in whatever career or field they’re in?
Find a strong, woman mentor and then get comfortable being uncomfortable. Women are often socialized to not ask for what they need or deserve, which is a huge contributing factor to us not having a seat at the table. As a first generation American and AfroLatinx woman of color, I grapple with imposter syndrome often. I have pushed myself far beyond what I thought was possible to access a seat at the table. And, when folks don’t want to give me one, I’m notorious for just creating my own space entirely. But this is after years of mentorship and support that has built up my confidence.
Taking on big goals can be overwhelming at times. As a mental health counselor, how do you recommend dealing with those kind of emotions?
Anxiety and stress can manifest in so many ways. For some, it’s physical, like a headache or stomach ache. For others it’s racing thoughts or a lump in their throat; others it’s insomnia or extreme lethargy. No matter how your body responds, the first step is to have an awareness that it is connected to your anxiety or stress. This may sound easy, but I’ve had clients describe certain discomforts without an awareness that it could be tied to their current levels of distress.
With that awareness, I would then offer that you focus on your breath. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. In a calmer state, you may find that you are better able to access further tools, including your support system.