International Running with The Emancipation Run Crew

By Kimberley Str8Kim Williams

This month Mid Strike Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with The Emancipation Run Crew. The name alone speaks to what this crew is about. As ERC says a group of BAME runners (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) coming together to allow runners to find their freedom in running and their community.

Kim: The Emancipation Run Crew is a very unique name. Tell us a little about how the crew was started and why. 

ERC: Emancipated Run Crew grew out of a need to create a safe, supportive and inclusive space for black and brown runners.  The group grew organically out of a WhatsApp group created by Trojan (one of the co-founders), who encouraged a bunch of us to sign up to a few organized runs.  Most of the initial group had been running for a number of years, but couldn’t see any running groups that reflected the diversity of the city we lived in (London).  We would sign up for numerous races and count the number of black or brown runners on one hand… or see running groups whilst running alone throughout London and wonder where all the black runners were.  We knew of other black runners, but they would be strangely absent from the races we’d enter, from the running magazines that we read, the local running clubs. Some of us tried to run with other running clubs and although not intended, we just didn’t feel like we belonged.  Somehow we always felt… “othered”.  It was only when we started to regularly sign up for races that we realized that we felt completely different turning up to races with two, three, four, five plus people than we did turning up on our own.  We felt seen, supported, safe. We felt the power in numbers. We felt the power of the shared experience.  A few of us started meeting up regularly for Park Runs where we would make sure we acknowledged other black runners who turned up alone. We picked up quite a few crew members that way!  What sets us apart from usual run crews is that we’re not focussed on running the fastest or farthest, what is important to us is allowing a space for each runner to run their own race.  Our name was really born out of the constant refrain you’d hear in our WhatsApp group chat – “you are free to run your own race… just run free!” We wanted to capture our particular perspective of runners who are children of  the African diaspora; descendants of enslaved people who fought for their emancipation and in doing so enable us to have the luxury of being able to run free.

Kim: Who are the founders of the ERC crew?  How did you meet, etc. 

ERC: The core founders are Trojan Gordon (a youth counsellor) and sisters Denise and Jules Stephenson (both lawyers). We’re pretty much neighbor’s and  live a few streets away from each other in an area called South Norwood in South East London. We all met on our daily commute to central London for work.  Denise was a keen runner who encouraged Trojan (and Jules!) to take up running in the early nineties. After numerous starts and stops, both Trojan and Jules caught the running bug. Between us we’ve run two marathons (Denise and Trojan) and countless half marathons, 10ks and 5ks.

Kim: How do you all balance your professional lives with leading a run crew that continuing to grow each day?

ERC: We each have really demanding jobs (which have only intensified since the start of the pandemic!), but we are all extremely passionate about encouraging black and brown people to get active (this desire has also really intensified since the start of the pandemic!) so running ERC is really a passion project for each of us!  We are also blessed to share the workload with fellow members Calvin Stowell and Gerard Williams, so between the five of us we are able to manage the socials, media work and we all interact daily with our ERC Family on WhatsApp.  ERC is a family – it really doesn’t feel like work! We share, we cheer, we support. We are super proud that we’ve created a community which is inclusive and welcoming – no matter what your running level we’re here to help runners achieve their goals – whether it’s your first 5k or your first marathon.

Kim: What is the running scene like in the UK? Are the running groups diverse? Was this one of the contributing factors of creating the Emancipation Run Crew?

ERC: Until the birth of Run Dem Crew back in 2007 (founded by DJ, poet and writer Charlie Dark), the running scene in the UK at a “casual level” felt predominantly white. Local running clubs were filled with what we call your “typical” runner – white, lean, young(ish).  Black runners were only seen in the elite sphere – we were largely absent from any running publications unless running in the national, world or Olympic championships. But although the birth of street crews really transformed running over the past few years we still didn’t see ourselves reflected in those crews – we often felt we weren’t fast enough, young enough, thin enough to fit in. We’re proud that Emancipated Run Crew has runners whose age ranges from early twenties to late fifties, body shapes that range from lean and mean to curvy and proud!  We have married couples, singles, straight, gay. We are free to just be. The Racial makeup of ERC, In the words of James Brown, we say it loud, we’re black and we’re proud!

Kim: Are there any misconceptions, generalizations, etc. out there about BAME runners in the UK that you’d like to clear up? 

ERC: For a long time there was a preconception that black runners were all sprinters, or that you had to be Kenyan to be a long distance runner (which of course meant that you had to be elite!).  But we’re here to show that running isn’t a hobby reserved for only for white middle class men and women – it belongs to all of us!  And we’re no longer waiting for established running clubs to include us – we are building our own running clubs and crews. There’s an increasing number of running crews that have been made for us, by us – Fly Girl Collective, Black Girls Do Run UK, BENI Run Club to name a few – or that are led by black running leaders such as Run Dem Crew, Run With Purpose, More Than Running and Mile Crushers. We are now establishing our own spaces, building our own platforms, creating our own stories.

Kim: Community efforts: Please tell us about any programs, volunteer efforts, etc. that the ERC has participated in, or any future endeavors that you plan to implement.

ERC: ERC is currently in talks with a running charity which supports young homeless people – we’re hoping to provide a running and mentoring program. We are also looking at whether we can design a program in conjunction with Denise’s charity ROK (Reach Out 2 Kids) to build self-confidence and resilience through the sport of running.  We also work with London Marathon Events on encouraging community participation in running events with a specific focus on encouraging runners from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

KIm: When and where does the crew meet? (Your weekly runs)

ERC: Before COVID the South London crew used to meet for weekly Park Runs, but luckily we also meet every day virtually on WhatsApp! Every single day we share our runs and champion each other’s achievements – the traffic is REAL!  But the WhatsApp group is crucial as we have ERCrew members in cities across the UK, namely Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, as well as over London.  The ERCrew WhatsApp group has been such a God-send throughout this period of lockdown!  However, we have been able to meet up for a few socially distanced runs during this lockdown – our next meet up is on 1 November for the Vitality Virtual 10K – can’t wait!

Kim: When the world opens back up, and we are able to travel to the UK again, what race do you recommend to visitors and why?

ERC: Of course if you’re into marathons, the London Marathon is a must! We’d definitely recommend the Vitality Big Half (which is April 2021), any of the Adidas City Runs (all in London). Outside London, we’d recommend Cardiff Half Marathon and the Chester Half Marathon. And of course, we’ll be organizing another Black Crews United run next August – come run with us!

Kim: Where can our readers find the ERC on socials?

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