Alison Mariella Désir Is Still Coming to Terms With Her Power

Sarah Hoffman

There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black – a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.

When she was young, Alison Mariella Désir‘s father had a nickname for her: powdered feet, which “describes somebody who’s so active, you never see them, just the footprints of where they’ve been in powder.”

The nickname is still fitting. Désir is the ultimate multihyphenate, with a résumé that looks like a grocery list of job titles – author, founder, activist, television host, adviser. But, as Désir says, her work only seems disparate. It’s all rooted in the desire to spread the message of the power of movement.

That goal is personal. Désir grew up thinking that distance running was “reserved for white folks,” until training for a marathon saved her life. Newly passionate about the connection between mental and physical health, she dedicated herself to opening up the activity to Black people and others who may not always be given a seat at the table.

To that end, Désir founded Harlem Run, a run club based in Harlem, NYC, that’s rooted in inclusivity and a desire to “transform the lives of urban communities.” She also founded Run 4 All Women, a movement that aims to use running as a tool for change by hosting events to raise money for causes or organizations like Black Voters Matter or Planned Parenthood.

More recently, Désir wrote “Running While Black,” a partly personal exploration of the ways in which distance running has been closed off to Black people. She also hosts “Out & Back,” a PBS show that lets her spotlight other folks who are breaking down the barriers marginalized communities face when trying to access the outdoors.

Here, she tells POPSUGAR how she got hooked on distance running to begin with, what she likes best about her multifaceted career, and whether she considers herself a “hero” for the work she’s done in her communities.

POPSUGAR: How did you first get into running?

Alison Desír: Growing up, I was a short-distance runner. But I came to distance running in 2012.

At the time, I was going through a period of depression due to life circumstances. My father had Lewy Body Dementia [a brain disease caused by an abnormal buildup of proteins]. I could not find a job. I was in a series of really bad relationships. And I was home all of the time, just scrolling on social media.

Thankfully, in one of those days of scrolling, I saw somebody who was training for a marathon. It struck me because I had grown up being a sprinter and always thinking about long-distance being reserved for white folks. So to see this Black man who was average build training for a marathon made me intrigued. And you know what marathoners do – they preach about how amazing running is and how it’s changing their life.

All of the things that he was saying were things that I was in search of. He was talking about how much meaning running was giving him and how it was connecting him to community. I saw in him what I wanted for myself.

I emailed him and asked a million questions about what it was like. And then I ultimately decided that maybe running a marathon was a thing that I needed to help me with my depression, and to help me find a sense of purpose again.

The next year, I signed up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon, [which] was the same marathon that he had run. In exchange for fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, you got access to training [through a program called Team in Training].

I took the training very seriously because this program was literally bringing me back to life. And I was able to complete the marathon, and my perspective shifted. For one, I recognized that I actually was capable of doing difficult things, which is something that I had known as a younger person but sort of lost in my depression.

And breaking up something seemingly impossible like a marathon into a plan where you attacked it week by week each week, building on your past success, shifted my perspective on how I approach life, how I approach problems, and how I approach things that I wanted to go after.

I used that same idea to apply to jobs and to start a community, which was Harlem Run. I of course had no idea what would come from that, but I knew that running had transformed my life, and I wanted to make it accessible for other people like me who didn’t know about long-distance running and had no idea that mental and physical health was connected.

PS: It sounds like from the very beginning, community was a part of your journey back into running. Tell me more about how you came up with this idea to start Harlem Run and what inspired your work around women running and people of color running.

AD: Community has always been an important thing for me. Particularly the idea of representation. When you see somebody like you do something, that makes that thing more accessible or seem more possible.

When I started training and saw just how powerful it was – I’m the kind of person who, when I find something, I want to share it with everybody, right? – I was blogging about it, and I decided I should put this into action. I should create a running group and a space where we’re running, but we’re also talking about mental health explicitly. We’re also doing it in a historically Black neighborhood where there have been divestments and a lack of access to the outdoors.

PS: As you got started building that community, did anything surprise you about what the reaction was, or how quickly the community kind of built up around you?

AD: I was surprised at the lack of interest in collaborating and supporting me. When I started, I didn’t know that there were other running clubs or crews in New York City. I only knew my own experience and the kind of place that I wanted to create.

“When you see somebody like you do something, that makes that thing more accessible or seem more possible.”

As I was building my community, I started going to other runs and events and realizing that they lacked warmth. When I asked or talked about collaboration, it seemed like groups were almost like gangs operating in neighborhoods where we couldn’t share ideas or share resources.

I also recognize that the leadership in New York was very male dominated, which it continues to be – although not as much, by any means, as it was when I started. But there were a lot of men in leadership positions and they weren’t interested in sharing any space with women.

The final piece was that in Harlem, as I was looking to partner with different yoga studios and health-related businesses, people just said no. I had this idea, and people just didn’t believe in what I saw – except for this one place, Harlem Yoga Studio.

It’s funny now in retrospect because so many of those businesses started reaching out as Harlem Run started to grow. As they started to see my vision manifest, they started to realize, oh, you know, we can benefit from this in some way.

PS: More recently, in 2022, you published your book “Running While Black.” What was your inspiration? Had you always wanted to write a book?

AD: I’ve always wanted to write a book. When I was little, 4 or 5 years old, my mom was getting her PhD from Johns Hopkins. So some of my earliest memories are of my mom on her typewriter. This idea of writing and documenting was always something that I wanted to do. But it seemed unrealistic, something that I didn’t have time for or wasn’t good enough to do.

But the murder of Ahmaud Arbery really shifted my perspective and made me realize that what I wanted to say was not being centered in conversations around movement or around running. It helped me realize that this was the book I wanted to write, and that I was the person who needed to write it.

The idea for the book started with an op-ed I wrote for Outside that was published on Mother’s Day, the birthday of Ahmaud Arbery, in 2020. In July, I started working on my book proposal, and by October, I had a book deal.

The reaction was actually really great. I think only more recently, in the past six months, have there been negative reactions. And I think that sort of just follows the political climate in this country, right? When the book came out, it was closer to the so-called “Racial Reckoning of 2020,” and there was more of an interest around this kind of work. And there now is a very clear and active backlash against any of this work.

But for me, it’s not just about the response being positive – but that people are being really thoughtful and engaging with the material and questioning things they’d thought beforehand.

PS: What’s a typical day in your life look like these days? What are you working on that excites you?

AD: What I like most about my life is that there are no typical days. Right now, I have this PBS show here in the Pacific Northwest called “Out & Back.” One thing that I’m really passionate about is telling other people’s stories, and giving other people an opportunity to share their stories.

“Out & Back” does exactly that, and it’s really exciting because not only do I get to tell these stories, but I also get introduced to all these amazing outdoor activities. I’ve been fly fishing and skiing and kayaking and horseback riding, all through telling these stories.

The way that I operate is, the more things that I know, the more people I wanna bring with me. Through my show, I’m being given access to all kinds of things that I never imagined myself doing. I’m also figuring out ways to increase access for other folks in the outdoors. I’ve started hosting retreats in Alaska that are BIPOC-focused.

I’m also working on a children’s book right now; I do consulting work around racial equity; and I’m a mom, which takes a lot of time. The earlier I wake up, the earlier my son seems to wake up.

PS: So I’m speaking to you as part of PS’s “Health Heroes” package, and as someone who’s a leader in the running and movement space, for all the work you’ve done creating a community for women runners and Black runners. Would you consider yourself a hero? What does it mean to you, to be called a hero for your work?

AD: I appreciate this question and this framing because I think, as a Black woman, it’s particularly important to recognize and state that Black women are seemingly always responsible for being heroes and doing the work, even at the expense of their own care.

“The way that I operate is, the more things that I know, the more people I wanna bring with me.”

The word “hero” seems big, and I wouldn’t necessarily use it for myself. But I do recognize the impact that I’ve made. I’m certainly not in all rooms and, you know, I still am a Black woman who deals with lack of pay equity and racism and sexism. But I also do realize that I have proximity to a lot of decision makers, and there are times when I am a decision maker and I can bring people into the room, and also make sure that I’m shifting the rooms so that when people are in them, they’re not uncomfortable.

But I do think that white women and white people more broadly – cis, heterosexual white people – should concern themselves more with being heroes as well. And seeing that the work that they do has to be beyond just their own individual success or their family’s success; it has to be intersectional and support broader communities.

Related Posts
Latest Fitness
The End.

The next story, coming up!