A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Alison Désir

Founder of Harlem Run


Feb. 27 2017, Published 2:00 a.m. ET

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A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Alison Désir
"We have this powerful community and theres so much more to be done."Quotation marks
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The politics of the body – how it moves into and through our country, how it occupies space, how it functions – have all been central to the national conversation since the Trump administration came into power. No one knows this better than Alison Désir.

Alison is the Founder of one of New York’s most popular running clubs –  Harlem Run. She’s also a social entrepreneur who founded Run4AllWomen,  a mental health counselor in training, and a believer that sports has the power to change lives.

In protest against the administration’s pending threats to women’s bodies, Alison ran over 252 miles to Washington D.C. (the equivalent of 9.5 marathons) in the days and nights leading up to the Women’s March on a mission to raise 44 thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood. Her campaign – Run For ALL Women– ended up bringing in more than 100 thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood, and bringing a national spotlight to the threats facing the organization.

Alison sat down with Her Agenda the week after her monumental run (actually, she phoned in on-the-go from her next adventure), where she talked about her untraditional path to establishing Harlem Run, the unexpected success of the Run For ALL Women campaign, and how we can keep our collective activist momentum going for the next four years.

I think of running as a political act.
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Her Agenda: First of all, how are you feeling?

Alison Désir: I’m still pretty exhausted. But I’m actually back in D.C. A while ago, I arranged for tickets to go to the National Museum of African American History. We took the bus last night, because I was like ‘I am not going to miss these tickets!’ But it’s a crazy thing to run to D.C. and then the following weekend be back in D.C. But feeling good.

Her Agenda: Those tickets are really hard to get, aren’t they?

Alison Désir: Exactly, so we signed up in November, and this is the earliest we could get. So we were not missing this!

Her Agenda: Totally. So, let’s start at the beginning, before all of your interests came together. You had a nickname growing up called “Powdered Feet.” What does it mean and where does it come from? 

Alison Désir: My parents are obviously responsible for everything that has to do with me, but, they sort of saw this coming. My nickname, “Powdered Feet” comes from the Haitian- Creole saying that means, “you never see the person, just the footprints of where they’ve been in powder.” It’s a trait that sort of drove my parents crazy when I was little, because they couldn’t stop me from doing things. I was involved in everything from sports, music, arts…I was really fortunate to have all these opportunities because I could never sit still.

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It was a good thing, but was always something where my parents wished I could be just a bit calmer when I was little. That nickname has really come to speak to the way that I operate. I’m very passionate about a lot of causes. I’m always getting involved where I can. It’s often hard for people to keep up with what I’m doing.

That’s often how a lot of things in my life have started, including this most recent initiative. I felt like, there was something that I could do. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. But when I looked around at my running community and what I was passionate about and what my resources were, I put together this idea to run to D.C. and raise money for Planned Parenthood. So my nickname sort of, initially was something that I think my parents wished they could’ve changed about me. But it has defined how I operate.

Her Agenda:  Talk to me about your relationship with running. Is that something you got into during the days of “Powdered Feet,” or was that something you got into later in life?

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Alison Désir: When I was little, initially, my parents put me in everything. Even before being put in any actual sports program, at recess I used to race the boys. [As a little girl], I played soccer, I played basketball, I ran track. In high school I did the 400m hurdles and the 400m. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I found distance running. I was going through a period of depression, because I couldn’t find a job, my boyfriend had broken up with me, and my father’s lewy body dementia diagnosis was getting progressively worse.

I just so happened to see someone sign up for a marathon on Facebook. He had signed up to train with Team In Training (part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), which offers marathon training in exchange for fundraising. People have asked me, why did you sign up? And something in me said, ‘I should sign up and train for a marathon.’ So I did just that.  A couple days later I went into the office in New York, and I signed up to run my first marathon and through that experience, I really found myself transformed.

After this first marathon, I raised $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And I started to blog about the experience. And I found that people were really connecting with my blog because I was sharing how running, was really just so much more than running for me.

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Through that process, I found out there’s this entire field of sports psychology. I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s not just me!’ Sports really can be used for social change, and there’s so much more that comes out of running and a life of sport.

"Sports really can be used for social change, and there’s so much more that comes out of running and a life of sport." -Alison Desir via Her Agenda
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A year after I started blogging about it, I started  Harlem Run.  I started that really because I had been blogging about it for so long, I really wanted to share this tangible experience with people. I wanted the group to really be focused on community. I wanted it to be available for people of all abilities. Because when I started running, my first big race was a marathon. But I had no idea what I was doing. But I wanted to show people who were maybe struggling with mental health issues, or in communities where people typically weren’t running marathons, I wanted them to know its possible.

Her Agenda: Have you seen a lot of benefits for the community through this group?

Alison Désir: Absolutely. The thing I noticed initially when I moved back to Harlem in 2013 was that there was no runners. Harlem in many ways is still a food desert. However then, there absolutely wasn’t anything you could eat. To contrast that, in 2013 – if you were to go anywhere else –near central park, near 59th, you would always see runners.

Now, not only does Harlem Run exist, we’ve inspired five or six other groups, that now operate out of Harlem. We also see more healthy food choices. The people who run with us –we’ve seen tons of weight lost. And our goal is not to lose weight, our goal is to help people achieve their goals. But for the people who have come to lose weight, they’ve lost weight.

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We’ve also seen people make meaningful relationships and meaningful friendships, sometimes to the point that I wonder if people who come to Harlem Run had any friends before they came to Harlem Run. Because now all I see is them with each other. Which is amazing. But that signals to me that there really was and remains a lack of community in Harlem and beyond. I think, once you become an adult, it’s pretty difficult to find ways to connect with people. And that becomes a problem. I hear people calling each other a family. People are living together. I can’t even tell you how many connections have been made through Harlem Run.

Her Agenda: How did all of these things come together to inspire you to make a 240 mile run to Washington D.C.? Is that right – 240 miles?

Alison Désir: It ended up being around 252 miles, Yep.

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"I’ve always seen running as a vehicle for social change.

Her Agenda: Gosh. Okay yeah. Let’s talk about that. You’re looking at your resources. You’re kind of like, ‘I run. I’m involved’. But how did this idea come to you? ‘cause 252 miles is pretty big.

Alison Désir: I was thinking about how running has changed my life. I’ve always seen running as a vehicle for social change. There’s a history of running for causes. There’s a history of people using movement for change. In the position that I’m in, I knew I had the platform. I knew I had the community. And resources for people who would join me on the run.

It was just a way to do what I could with what I had. I never could have imagined that it would transform into what it has.

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Once I put it out there, I reached out to one of my friends who is a woman of color, and an ultra marathoner. And told her, “look, I need you to be on board. Because if you’re not on board, I don’t think this is possible.” She immediately said yes.

From there, I put together the GoFundMe page. Once I put it out there, hundreds of women started reaching out.  It quickly transformed from what was originally a five day journey to where we would be sleeping at night, along the way. We transformed it into a relay in order to allow maximum participation. Honestly I think that was the best decision I ever made, because that’s how so many women connected to it. That’s why so many women were signing up to run different legs of the relay with us. Women were signing up to provide food, and cheer stations. This one woman opened up her home to all of us and allowed us to shower there. It really allowed people to….in probably one of the most terrible weeks in our inauguration history…it allowed women and men to focus on something that was positive. And that was contributing to Planned Parenthood. Which we know is under attack.

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Her Agenda: Out of curiosity – obviously there are a lot of different groups that are getting attacked under this presidency. Why Planned Parenthood? What was it about that mission about women and women’s bodies that called to you?

Alison Désir: I mean, for me, obviously as a woman and as a runner…I think of running as a political act. This is actually the anniversary of the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. 50 years ago, women weren’t allowed to run marathons. People thought women’s uteruses would fall out if they ran too much. And even today when women are more widely accepted as runners and athletes, we are still always getting catcalled, harassed, etc.

[My choice to raise funds for] Planned Parenthood is really about making a statement that neither the government nor the President should be able to tell us what we can and can’t do [with our bodies], and what our access to resources for our own bodies should be. It was the obvious choice.

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"As an advocate for women’s rights, I feel there’s no greater organization working for women’s rights than Planned Parenthood." Alison Desir via Her Agenda

In addition, I of course have personal experiences with Planned Parenthood and friends of mine who use their resources. As an advocate for women’s rights, I feel there’s no greater organization working for women’s rights than Planned Parenthood. Also recognizing that this is my lane: this is what I’m passionate about. But I also hope that there are people out there who are going to run and do whatever they can for the environment or education. But what’s authentic to me is Planned Parenthood. And this is the moment that everyone needs to get out there and  save, our country. Save our world.

Her Agenda: What was it like by the time you guys got to D.C.?

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Alison Désir: Oh my gosh, it was the biggest relief in the world. You have to imagine. We are running all these miles. Then  we are stuck in a van. You’re getting closer, but never close enough.  When we were four miles away from the capitol building, that actually made me want to go faster, because I wanted to finish. It was surreal. The minute I finished, I almost felt like the whole trip hadn’t happened. When I look back at pictures, I think, ‘that was only a week ago?’

But I know that it’s real because I know that the money has been raised. I know that I went through it. You can’t really capture the memory, you know? But it’s such a testament to what I can do. What we can do as a collective. And it’s a reminder that now, we have this powerful community and there’s so much more to be done.

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"What we can do as a collective. And it’s a reminder that now, we have this powerful community and there’s so much more to be done." -Alison Desir via Her Agenda

I’m thinking through that (what’s to be done). I don’t have a concrete idea. But many people have told me they were inspired by the fact that this small crazy idea materialized. I really do hope that many women start realizing the way their gifts, their talents, their communities can start as something small and turn into something bigger. I alone can’t sustain this. I’ll get burnt out. I have other responsibilities. But if each of us takes our opportunity to contribute, we can sustain this for four years or for however long we must.

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" I alone can’t sustain this. I’ll get burnt out. I have other responsibilities. But if each of us takes our opportunity to contribute, we can sustain this for four years or for however long we must." -Alison Desir via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: As the viewer, that’s the effect that it has.

Alison Désir:  Right. Things like, I didn’t start this knowing I was going to raise 100,000 dollars. When my mom gave me $200 dollars, I thought, “That’s going to be our largest single donation. At least we have $200 dollars.” Any amount that you raise, even if you don’t raise money, the awareness that you bring to other people is important. Obviously its super sexy to be in newspapers or whatever, but never the less, whatever the level your project achieves is so important. Especially if there are millions of people doing that. I mean, that’s the whole thing behind voting. Collectively we need to each do our part, and then it is greater than just the individuals.

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Any amount that you raise, even if you don’t raise money, the awareness that you bring to other people is important.

Her Agenda: Your goals was originally 44K for the 44th President, Obama. But you ended up more than doubling that. First of all, how does that feel? And I guess secondly, do all those resources go to planned parenthood?

Alison Désir:  It’s hard to believe that much money has been raised. It’s still coming in. Obviously its trickling in more slowly but it’s still happening. People are still donating. It just speaks to how important this issue is. The fact that, again, its making people feel like they are taking an active role in something. It’s really easy to watch the news and not know where to start. So this is offering people the ability to be part of something. But it definitely blows me away. Never in my life did I think I was going to raise this amount of money.

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In terms of where does the money go? All of it goes to Planned Parenthood. One thing we were really lucky to have, was that everything was donated. We had this massive van to keep us safe. We had drivers every eight hours that were hired for us. All of that was donated. All the food was donated. Which was amazing, because one – it didn’t have to come out of my pocket and two that showed just how invested other people were who didn’t know me were invested in our safety and in our ability to accomplish this.

So the money is going to be given to the national office (at Planned Parenthood). They are then going to allocate the funds depending on which areas are at most risk of being defunded and which areas need the money the most. I have a commitment to give some amount of money to New York. Because again, when I started this project I was called up the office and was like, “Hey guys, I’m going this little thing. I’d love to send you a check.” So, New York is going to get an amount of the fundraising and then Planned Parenthood national will put the resources where they needed most.

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"we have to rely on listening and learning from others to be more inclusive."

Her Agenda: Is there anything you want to speak to that we haven’t covered?

Alison Désir:  Thank you for asking. I think that an important thing I’m thinking about is just inclusivity. I know a lot of things that have come out from the March, things like women wearing the pussy hat, have sent a message to trans women that they are not included in the movement. I think that, we can – this is not a copout – but I think each of us can only do what we can with what we know and what our experience is. And we have to rely on listening and learning from others to be more inclusive. So, I’m thinking about what are ways my initiative can be more inclusive? What are ways that I’m listening more and not be resistant to the idea that more people can be part of this?

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The other thing I want people to realize is that there’s not just one way of being a woman, or being Black or being anything. There’s very much more than just one definition of it. It’s a pluralistic approach. We have to understand there are many ways of being these identities. None of us should seek to speak for all of those identities with what we are doing. It’s also an exercise for me to thinking about how I can be more inclusive in that.

Her Agenda: You definitely said it so beautifully in terms of, having the tools of coming from your own experience and everybody being able to give what they can, being open to others, and expanding that. It’s such an important thing, especially now. The March really pushed that conversation forward: what does feminism look like in 2017?

Alison Désir:  The good thing is that now, we are actually talking about it. We should have heated discussions. We should be revising and rewriting what we are thinking. So, the articles that come out and try to damn the march for not having done everything, well, nothing can be everything. It’s very much a dynamic process. This is very much a success.

[Editor’s note: This interview published on February 27th, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity]

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