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We Run Proud. We Run Strong. We Run Brownsville

The most inspiring running group in New York.

Five African American women stand with hands on hips wearing matching blue t-shirts, leggings and running sneakers. They pose in front of a mural that has a face and many words on it.
The fierce women of We Run Brownsville. Photo credit: The Well
A 19 year old woman with black hair in a ponytail wears a peach tank top and has her phone strapped to her arm and earbuds in her ears. She is smiling as she runs outside.

Inspiration at your fingertips

Ericka McSwain stands on the track, headphones covering her ears, face lit by the glow of her smartphone. It’s cold. She swipes through her phone, searching for the right music to get her hyped and feeling warm—maybe some T.I. or Young Jeezy. Ericka is training for an upcoming 5K with We Run Brownsville, a group of women in the Brownsville, Brooklyn, community who run together for fitness. Ericka and the 17 other team members on the track tonight do not look like anyone’s standard vision of runners—they are grandmothers, women with complex health problems, women who are overweight. But they are proving looks can be very deceiving.

The women of We Run Brownsville take an easy lap around the track to warm up during a Monday night practice at Betsey Head Park in Brownsville, Brooklyn. | Photo credit: The Well

Brownsville, Brooklyn, has some of the bleakest health statistics in New York City. Its residents have the shortest life expectancies in the city. A third of its adults are obese. Death rates due to diabetes, HIV, hypertension and homicide are more than twice the rates for the entire city. Lifelong friends and natives of Brownsville, Sheila Gordon and Dionne Grayman, didn’t like the odds or reputation their hometown prophesied, so they did something about it. They founded We Run Brownsville at the end of 2015 to encourage the women living and working in the community to take control of their health. “You change the outcome for a mother, you change outcomes for her children,” says Sheila, who works for New York Road Runners and does regular presentations at community clinics and health centers. “We’re disrupting the deficit narrative.”

Sheila Gordon, co-founder of We Run Brownsville, wants to help women overcome the community’s roadblocks to physical fitness. | Photo credit: The Well

Fighting back with fitness

Experts say there’s a clear link between where you live and how easy it is to be healthy. “Your health outcomes are determined as much by your ZIP code as by your genetic code,” says Dr. Ram Raju, senior vice president and community health investment officer at Northwell Health. “This is a great group of women trying to make a difference in a hostile environment.”

Ericka is one of the women running to make a difference for herself and her adopted community. She lives on Long Island, but works in Brownsville as the operations manager for the Brownsville Community Justice Center. She empathizes with the residents. She looks like them. She has their same health struggles. In 2009, Ericka weighed more than 300 pounds before undergoing bariatric surgery, and then gained 100 pounds back after having her son in 2011. She worked out sometimes, but not regularly. Aching joints and fatigue plagued the busy, hard-working single mother. How would she ever have the time or energy to work out? Initially, when a coworker invited her to join the running group, she declined. “I’m not a runner,” she thought. “I know I’m not going to be able to do it.”

Ericka’s world changed dramatically a few months later. Her mother—who suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure—began struggling to breathe while the family watched TV together one night in June 2016. She died that summer.

“Her death reminded me that I had to do everything I could to be healthy and to be here for my son,” Ericka said. She joined a gym and got a personal trainer. When the opportunity to join We Run Brownsville came again that fall, she took it.

We Run Brownsville was founded in 2015 by lifelong friends Sheila Gordon and Dionne Grayman to empower the women of Brownsville, Brooklyn, to take control of their health. | Photo credit: The Well

If someone in Brownsville hears the word “runners,” Ericka says, “They assume it’s a bunch of fit, skinny women who train for marathons. That’s not who we are.”

Instead, they are women who come to get a little healthier, and stay for the group spirit and support. Their coach, Zakia Haywood, has a mission: Get women from the couch to the 5K. Over the course of eight weeks, she trains the team—most of whom have never run before—to compete. There are 32 women on the current roster; many of the runners return year after year, but new members join regularly. Before they joined, most of the women couldn’t even conceive how long a mile is. “They laugh at first,” Zakia says. “They say they can’t run a half block to catch a bus.”

But that’s in the beginning. “They’re getting faster and stronger,” says the coach.

Coach Zakia Haywood (right) does leg lifts with the We Run Brownsville running team during practice. | Photo credit: The Well

Overcoming obstacles

Zakia was introduced to the group by Sheila, her coworker at New York Road Runners. An accomplished runner, Zakia ran track while attending college at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, and competes in major marathons. Born and raised in Brownsville, she now lives in the Bronx with her husband and children. But for her, Brownsville is home. “I get as much out of it as they do,” she says of the group. “It’s about building community and empowering people.”

Much like the women who train, the team’s practice track isn’t necessarily what you’d expect, either. It’s warped and cracked, with missing chunks. The team’s choice of training location is not an accident. They run there on purpose to draw attention to the track’s poor condition despite the fact that it’s regularly used by the people of Brownsville. Tracks and athletic fields are viewed as superfluous luxuries, instead of vital places for the community, so there is no funding to repair them, Dionne says. “A park wouldn’t be viewed that way in any other community in the city. Good health is not a luxury.”

Most of the women on the We Run Brownsville running team have no previous running experience. They practice twice weekly to prepare for 5K races in and around New York City. | Photo credit: The Well

Neglect of public spaces can affect an entire community’s health. “The problem isn’t the community,” Dr. Raju says about Brownsville. “People adapt to their conditions to survive. The problem is that there is no healthcare justice without social justice.”

“If a woman is obese but doesn’t walk because she’s concerned about her personal safety or the condition of the sidewalks or there are no sidewalks, then there’s not much else she can do but get more medicine for her blood pressure or her blood sugar,” Dr. Raju says. “We try to compensate social inequity with more medication.” This is why, he explains, the U.S. does much worse than comparable countries in life expectancy and levels of diabetes, obesity and heart disease despite spending three times as much on health care as other countries with similar incomes.

“This is a group of women who are advocating for themselves and their health,” he says about We Run Brownsville. But it’s difficult to outrun the community’s lack of health support. “We have a moral obligation to these communities.”

Not even nightfall can deter the women of We Run Brownsville from their mission. They run for each other, their health and their lives. | Photo credit: The Well

Being there for each other

The runners’ commitments to their own health and each other is making a difference already. Sheila can attest to that. Despite being a regular runner, she suffered a stroke in the fall of 2016. A few months later, when the team began spring training for the Percy Sutton 5K in August 2017, Sheila decided she’d cheer from the sidelines. But Zakia wouldn’t have it. “We’ll go slow. We won’t leave you,” Sheila recalls her friend and coach telling her. So she trained for and ran the race. “They were so encouraging. Halfway through the race, I really wanted to get a taxi and go! But every time I turned around, there was another woman from the team cheering me on, running beside me.”

Other wins may not be as dramatic, but they are no less triumphant. Miss Jeanette, a team member in her 50s with a Caribbean lilt and a girlish giggle, once said, “I am touching my toes. I haven’t touched my toes in years."

The women of We Run Brownsville have become a cohesive group, supporting each other through physical and emotional challenges. | Photo credit: The Well

“Since I’ve joined these ladies, I’ve felt good,” says member Grace Phlatts, who was diagnosed with a progressive muscular disorder and told running might not be possible for her. She arrives to practice each week with a big smile and hugs for her teammates. On the track, she is not as fast as the others—she sometimes speed walks when she cannot maintain her trot. Despite this, she comes to the track for all official practices, as well as an additional two times a week on her own. “The mind is powerful,” she says. “If you only listened to what the doctors say, there’s a lot you wouldn’t do.”

Grace Phlatts runs through a tunnel of teammates including Ericka McSwain (left). | Photo credit: The Well

“The track is a safe haven,” Zakia says. “It’s a place for us to be free—mentally, spiritually and physically.”

It all leads up to this

It was time for the hilly Jingle Bell Jog in Prospect Park and Ericka was ready—her first 5K. She was afraid leading up to the event, but by race day, she was hopped up on adrenaline and felt confident with her friends by her side. Before each race, they coordinate their outfits to look like a team and to ensure everyone has fun. “We want to make the race less intimidating,” Zakia says. For this race, they were dressed in tutus. “We looked so cute in our tutus and it made a bold, fashionable statement,” Zakia says. “Everyone wanted to know who those women from Brownsville were.”

The first half mile was all uphill. There were times Ericka had to stop and walk. But Zakia did not leave her side. Ericka’s father, son and sisters were waiting at the top of the hill to cheer her on. She ran the whole race and bawled like a baby at the finish line, happy and sore.

She did it for her mother.

Ericka McSwain joined We Run Brownsville after her mother died. It hasn’t been easy, but she’s committed to working hard for the sake of her family. | Photo credit: The Well

And she plans to keep running with the team. “I have a 6-year-old son. I have to be able to keep up with him.” Her running goals are modest—she wants to run a race without stopping at all to rest. “Without this team, I wouldn’t be in the happy state that I am,” she says. “It’s therapeutic.”

In that way, the running almost isn’t the point—the team is. “Women show up and they continue to show up for themselves and each other," Dionne says.  “For a woman to show up for herself, with all her vulnerability, all her fear and hesitation, is aspirational. It feeds my soul.”

But it isn’t always fun or easy. In the biting breezes of colder nights, Zakia still insists the group do 50 full squats shortly after several laps around the track. “There’s grumbling and cussing,” Dionne says about training. “A lot of cussing,” Sheila concurs. “And a lot of eye rolling and teeth sucking, but they do it!”

Coach Zakia Haywood counts out squats for the We Run Brownsville running team during a Monday night practice. | Photo credit: The Well

There’s also a lot of cheering for themselves and each other. Just completing a round of leg lifts elicits whoops and shouts of congratulations.

In the dark, under the high stadium lights, the women of We Run Brownsville near the end of another workout. Zakia has them do three sets of standing push-ups against a cold fence. Triceps burning, backs tightening, they push. “Feel that!” Zakia calls out.

“All for Brownsville!” Grace shouts between push-ups. “All for my ladies! All for me!”

The women of We Run Brownsville are working toward building a healthier community. Members and their families pose proud and strong at the end of a practice. | Photo credit: The Well

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Published March 6th, 2018
A 19 year old woman with black hair in a ponytail wears a peach tank top and has her phone strapped to her arm and earbuds in her ears. She is smiling as she runs outside.

Inspiration at your fingertips