Unafraid and Daring with Alison Mariella Désir

Alison Mariella Désir, founder of Harlem Runs NYC

Running has the ability to bring people together through all walks of life. It has the ability to bring people together through both the good and most difficult times, serving as an avenue of communication between each other. What running also does is it allows us to show our actions through movement: as protest, as unity, as togetherness.

Throughout the history of this publication, there have been individuals creating change in ways that I like to call “quiet seismic proportions”. One such runner doing just that is Alison Mariella Désir, founder of Harlem Run NYC. For those that may not know, in 2017 Alison was voted by The Root 100 as one of the most influential African-Americans ages 25-45, but that’s just one facet of one of the busiest run leaders ever.

MSM: Throughout these last few issues there are runners that have been on our shortlist to speak to, so thank you for spending some time with us. For our readers tell us a little bit about Alison, but not the good-good stuff yet, let’s save that for later. 

Alison: Thank you for the feature!  I am a community organizer, activist, collaborator, mental health advocate, and mother to an almost 2-year-old named Kouri Henri.  Finding long-distance running in 2012 completely transformed my life and has given me community, family, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I never imagined would be available to me, including meeting my partner, Amir Figueroa, through Instagram in 2014.

MSM: We’re both from the NYC area, and you’ve always struck me as a well-respected person in our run community. One thing I’ve noticed is that it has always extended beyond running. What was running and fitness like before Harlem Run? Also, what I love about running is that it’s a sport open to everyone. The beauty of it is that all the doors open up should you choose to remain consistent, How did you get into running and what was it that drew you into the sport? What was that moment for you when you said to yourself this is definitely my lane?

Alison: I found long distance running in 2012 when I was deeply depressed.  I stumbled upon a friend of mine training for a marathon and I was really struck by his journey because I had never seen a regular Black guy train for a marathon.  I knew, of course, about East Africans who dominated in the marathon distance but I really had never seen or known of an average Black person running a marathon.  I became glued to his story and reached out to him to ask him questions – like, what if you have to pee during the race?  What if you get hungry? Really funny to think about now but I honestly had no idea.  When I saw him complete the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon I knew that it was possible for me and signed up for the same charity fundraising program he did.  Training for the marathon helped lift my spirits and give me the courage to seek mental health counseling for my depression.  Running, counseling, finding community – all of that really helped get me out of a very dark place. 

I completed the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon in June of 2012, raised over $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and knew that I had discovered my path.  A year later, in November of 2013, I started Harlem Run because I had not seen many Black people throughout my training program and wanted to create a space for more people like me.  Being the leader of Harlem Run – as one of the first and only Black women leaders in the running scene – has not always been easy because of a lot of the egos I’ve had to deal with but it has been the most fulfilling experience of my life.

MSM: I find that with no races, no places to hang out, and all the restrictions that the vice grip has on everything, has essentially forced us to become more creative. You seem to be always on the go! How have you managed to push through Covid life not only with running but all your other ventures?

Alison: You know – I’m very self-motivated and find that I am most happy when I’m deeply engaged in meaningful work.  That does not mean that my world was not completely turned upside down like everyone else’s due to Covid-19.  In March of 2020, I was only just beginning to feel like myself after giving birth to my son and struggling with postpartum anxiety – I had plans to get back to running more seriously, return to social life with my friends, find Kouri daycare – and then everything shut down.  Professionally, I had a multi-city tour lined up, now the virtual tour known as Meaning Thru Movement, that I had to quickly reconfigure and pivot without knowing whether it would even be well received. 

The racial injustices that we witnessed during quarantine were soul-crushing but also pushed me to really put myself out there and use my voice to call attention to these issues and use my platform to organize my community for change.  Whether organizing Womxn Run the Vote and raising $270,000 for Black Voters Matter or partnering with the 223 Foundation to help raise close to $300,000 for scholarships for Black youth in Georgia or writing to call-out members of the running industry for the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion it was a busy but incredibly fulfilling year.  

MSM: Let’s center the conversation back to your work as founder of Harlem Run, one of the most recognizable run groups in NYC. I will say this: When I’m running the NYC Marathon, I know I better be running when I get to Harlem because your cheer section is one of the best. For our readers, take us through the inception of Harlem Run in 2013. What led you to create HR and what are some of the foundations that make Harlem Run? 

Alison: That’s right!!!  Harlem Run will hold you down!  I touched on this a bit earlier, but really the foundation of Harlem Run is about creating a welcoming space where people can feel like they’ve become part of a family when they show up.  We were the first group to offer a walking group and a run-walking group to ensure that it was not just runners who were able to get the experience of being part of the NYC running community.  Additionally, running as a vehicle for personal transformation and social change underlies all of the work that we do.  I have witnessed people overcome personal obstacles as well as seen people make deep impacts in communities thanks to being part of Harlem Run.  I just hope that Harlem Run can always be a place of belonging.

MSM: Piggybacking off of the last question a bit, as an activist, what are some of the discussions and goals of those chats that are had not only amongst the run community but the public as well?

Alison: I always ask myself – who is not in the room or who is not showing up?  While it would be impossible to cater for every single person, I think it’s important to reflect on what it is about your community or movement you’re building that may prevent someone from showing up?  And is there something that I/we can actively do to make it so that more people feel comfortable being there?  For example, if you’re saying that everyone is welcome but then you don’t have pace groups beyond 10mins, you’re signaling to people who run at a slower pace that they are not actually welcome. 

That being said, you may do all that you can and someone still just does not feel a connection to the group but equity is about removing obstacles for people to participate and then making sure that they feel welcomed when they arrive.  Harlem Run leadership talk about and work on that a lot.  We call it “The Harlem Run Way”.  Shout out to HR leadership: Jesse Liriano, Amir Figueroa, Ike Onyeador, Darryl Milton, Malena Arnaud, Talisa Hayes, Raydime Polano, Philippa Godoy, Lisa Rivera, JD Davis, and Jeffrey Restrepo.  

MSM: Growing up in NYC, Harlem has changed A LOT! Gentrification has moved in at a rate that has made old Harlem not even close to recognizable in some areas. Do you find it even more important not only for yourself but your fellow run family to understand what Harlem really stands for? 

Alison: What’s happened/happening in Harlem is, unfortunately, happening in communities all over the country and world.  It’s not only heartbreaking but also a social justice issue – lack of affordable housing and food has meant that entire communities are being displaced for wealthier and most often white folks.  With that displacement, the heart and soul of the community begins to erode.  I’ve always felt it my responsibility and the responsibility of Harlem Run to not only be respectful of Harlem and its history and people but to root everything that we do in giving back.  We have raised thousands of dollars for local organizations, support local park programming, collaborate with and uplift members of the community.  It’s a non-negotiable. 

Running as a vehicle for personal transformation and social change underlies all of the work that we do.  I have witnessed people overcome personal obstacles as well as seen people make deep impacts in communities thanks to being part of Harlem Run.  I just hope that Harlem Run can always be a place of belonging”.

Alison Mariella Désir

MSM: As a prominent figure in the run community you’re constantly using your voice and actions to create change in our communities while also speaking to the everyday issues and battles we as black people struggle with. For our readers give us some insight into how you’re able to keep this necessary dialogue going not only with your teammates but people in general?

Alison: Using my voice has not gotten easier but I’ve just become more comfortable with the discomfort and risks associated with it.  I think of it in the same way I think of training for a marathon – it never gets easier, but you get stronger and more familiar with what training is going to look like and how to roll with the punches.  I recognize the privileges that I do have – my education, my access to resources – and firmly believe it’s my obligation to use it for good.  I’m also always, always learning and am excited to share those learnings with friends, family and community. 

MSM: There’s a theme that is deeply rooted as ‘not to be discussed’ in our communities: well-being through mental health therapy. Growing up, it was never explained as something that we should discuss amongst ourselves and not be swept under the rug as it is most of the time – especially with what we continue to struggle with as Black folks. As a mental health coach, what are some of the important points you discuss or like to hit on?

Alison: You’re right – there is a huge stigma related to mental health, particularly in Black and brown communities.  For me, I got to such a dark place and really felt like I was the only person in the universe who felt as badly as I did.  I was hopeless and embarrassed and afraid of sharing my truth.  However, I found that through my vulnerability, I was able to discover that I was not alone and that there were people who were willing to love and support me even through what I felt were some of my ugliest and most shameful moments.   I would love for everyone to know that you are not alone and that there are incredible resources and people who can support you.  One of my favorite quotes is something Frida Kahlo once said:

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

Additionally, I want to make it clear that racism is a public health crisis and that it has very real and harmful effects on our mental and physical health.  Witnessing Black people being murdered by police and vigilantes and not being held accountable, being regularly dehumanized and left out of opportunities – all of this creates cultural trauma – the likes of which we’ve been dealing with for generations.  I would like to normalize the anxiety and depression many of us are feeling right now. 

MSM: Running can serve as a reset when we tend to feel some kind of way but it doesn’t usually fix or solve the larger issue. For someone that may be struggling, what are some minor tweaks that you would recommend to a person’s day-to-day? Something that can help build good personal habits that can improve a person’s mental health. 

Alison: I always recommend that you seek counseling if you feel you need it or if you’re even curious about it.  Counseling is not just for when you are in crisis.  But beyond that, I think it’s really important to get outside every day, whether you go for a run or a walk.  The outdoors is known to have a positive impact on your mental health – whether your walking in the park or on the street.  If going outside does not feel safe or good to you, I recommend taking a shower every day and creating some sense of routine for yourself – even if it’s fairly loose.  There were weeks during early lockdown in New York that I did not shower for days and felt really listless.  It happens.  But you always have an opportunity to choose differently another day. 

MSM: We love to speak about women’s empowerment, speaking with those as yourself that are working to create change of seismic proportions. You’ve done and continue to do so much, but do you ever take a step back to really take in everything that you’ve accomplished? Most of all, all the folks that you’ve inspired along the way?

Alison: Well first of all, thank you!  It does kind of blow my mind when I think about all that I’ve done – all that my community has helped me accomplish.  It’s pretty wild and I’m grateful! I can honestly say that it’s really hard for me to believe how much has happened over the past eight or so years.  Pinch me!

MSM: Changing the pace a bit, where does Alison get her inspiration from each day?

Alison with her son Kouri

Alison: These days, I would say my son.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to be his mother and now I can’t even remember what life was like before him (I used to think I was busy – but it really was nothing compared to life now, lol).  It hurts me so deeply to imagine anything happening to him – let alone something tragic happening to him because of who he will become – a Black man in America.  I just have to do everything that I can to make his life as easy and happy as possible.  He’s my inspiration.

MSM: A few years back you wrote the forward to Running Is My Therapy: Relieve Stress and Anxiety, Fight Depression, and Live Happier and you’re also now an author. That is pretty amazing. What was that process like? I’m sure some of our readers are future authors or interested in becoming one. What advice would you give to them?

Alison: I was so lucky to have the opportunity to write that foreword…and I’m actually now working on my own book, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running, which will be published in October of 2022.  I will say that working on this book right now is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.  For anyone who is considering writing a book, I would advise that you build a team of folks around you who can help you.  For me, that is my agent, my editor, my husband, and a few friends who have offered to help read my work and give honest feedback.  Writing a book will make you feel like you’re a superhero one day and then make you question your worth the next.  Stay the course! 

MSM: With everything that you have going on how do you maintain your balance?

Alison: I don’t have any kind of balance, to be honest.  There is a lot of chaos in my life but also a lot of great energy and love.  I’m really thankful for Amir, my partner, who always believes in me and supports me in taking on bigger challenges.  I’m also inspired by him and how passionate he is about his work and his running endeavors.  So yeah, there’s no balance and sometimes I drop the ball, but I try to pick it up as soon as possible or find someone who can hold on to it for me. 

MSM: Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), essentially building a better future for the diverse running community and changing the narrative that running, is not only for whites but all facets of nationalities. For our readers, take us through some of the long-term goals for RIDC?

Alison: We imagine a world where any and everyone can just show up and run without fear.  We only just launched in October and we’ve reached so many milestones (almost 1,000 partners, hosted several widely attended workshops, have had many conversations with members of the running industry, amassed a supportive following on social media that holds us accountable, incorporated as a 501c3, etc., etc.).  Short-term, we are in the process of seeking funding for the organization so that we can hire an executive director and are moving through a strategic planning phase to make sure we have the structures in place to support our goals.  Long-term: we have a research project in mind, we have hopes of creating a Running Industry DEI index that allows folks to easily get an understanding of where partners are in their DEI journey, and we really want to continue to provide excellent workshops and education that will lead to transformational change.

MSM: A leader is only as strong as his/her fellow team that follows behind them, Who are some of the folks that are always holding down Alison Désir?

Alison: My partner, of course, the Harlem Run leadership team that I mentioned that are really the closest people to me, my best friend Sean Peters who was one of the first people to show up to Harlem Run and shows up for any and everything that I do, and my mother.  My father passed away five years ago but I know that he would be behind me 100 percent.  He nicknamed me Powdered Feet when I was little – it describes somebody that is so active, you never see them, just the footprints of where they’ve been in powder.  He always knew that this would be my path. 

MSM: Lastly we’ve seen you switch coast as you’ve gone from East to West. I’m sure you’re glad to get away from these sub 30-degree temps and snow. Any chance we’ll see an RIDC run club on the west coast led by none other than you?  

Alison: I’m excited for a lot of collaboration out here.  Yes, the weather is amazing (I really don’t mind the rainy winters and spring/summer is going to be beautiful).  Additionally, there are lots of dope groups out here doing big things and I want to experience it and see how I can partner and uplift the work. I recently organized a Seattle Running Summit bringing together leaders of various running clubs, crews and events to share ideas and get to know each other.  I can’t wait to find my people out here. 

MSM: Any last words you’d like to share for our readers?

Alison: I’m a very busy person but I’m also very passionate about connecting with folks who have questions about how I’ve accomplished what I have or share any other insights.  For my BIPOC – please know that I am a resource.  It might take a minute for me to find the time, but I will.  If we aren’t sharing our knowledge and our connections, then we really are doing a disservice to our communities.

MSM: I think I speak for many people when I say we are proud of all the things you’re continuing to do for not only the run community but also our community and culture in general. Keep on pushing and representing. 

Alison: Many thanks for thinking of me and this incredible feature.  Really proud to be represented in this magazine for us by us!

MSM: Please drop any social media info for our readers to follow you along with any other info you’d like to share with our readers.

Alison: Would love to stay connected – you can follow me at instagram.com/alisonmdesir; find more information about me at alisonmdesir.com and support me and my work at patreon.com/alisondesir

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