By Keron Alleyne I Photos by RCS Images

We Run Brownsville (WRB) aims to embolden women of color living and working in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, NYC to prioritize self-care and take ownership of their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. Through the lens of collective responsibility, WRB promotes “active activism” as a way to co-create an empathetic, non-judgmental support structure that sustains a holistic healthy lifestyle and advances an empowered resistance to systemic barriers.

Keron: Tell us how it all really started.

WRB: The story of We Run Brownsville (WRB) is really the story of a friendship that began in the 1980s on the handball courts at Junior High School 275 when we were introduced by mutual friends. We have been best friends ever since. The foundation of our friendship has been the inspiration for every gathering of women we have intentionally cultivated through the decades. We are godmothers to each other's children and have seen each other through joy and pain. From club-hopping to traveling abroad to motherhood, we’ve always done the work of centering and celebrating Black womanhood because we've always been each other's biggest cheerleader, best accountability partners, and strongest source of support. As co-founders of WRB, this is the latest iteration of that work.

Keron: We Run Brownsville. Where does the idea-turned-concept like this come from?

WRB: In 2015, the New York State Health Foundation announced an RFP process that involved releasing $10,000 each to six neighborhoods within the state with a high number of public housing residents. Brownsville, which has the highest concentration of public housing in the nation, was one of the areas in Brooklyn slated to receive funding as well as technical support from a local organization to respond to the RFP. The Brownsville Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative was designed to support community members in crafting innovative ideas for generating positive health outcomes with modest budgets. I was invited to join a stakeholder committee that had been convened to vet residents’ proposals as a demonstration of equity. In typical fashion, however, the process itself was inequitable. To begin with, the language that was used in both written and digital communications assumed an educational level that may have been out of alignment with community reality. The expectations that people would KNOW what even an “RFP '' was and how to write a narrative with a supporting budget were unrealistic and caused people to feel shut out of the process.  Also, most applications came from organizations with existing sizable budgets leaving little room at the table for the very people for which this project had been purported. One evening, while venting my frustration to Sheila, I told her that I had shut down voting on the projects from those groups and suggested that the committee push back the deadline to allow for more representation from within the community to repair the harm being caused (again and as usual) to the neighborhood through blatant disregard. I suggested that they reach out to people from the community that had previously shared with me their “blue sky” ideas- their personal passion projects that married a skill or talent with a way to make their floor, building, block, and Brownsville better.

We reached out to three different women to tell them we would work with them to bring to life a community baby shower, a knitting collective, and an outdoor yoga event. I brought my educator experience with specific expertise in community engagement to help draft the project ideas while Sheila, a former bank executive, used her extensive background in finance to formulate the budgets. When we finished, there was about $1800 left on the table and we felt good about disrupting the process in a way that lifted the people that needed and deserved to be lifted. Sheila “joked'' that we should start a running club to literally and figuratively keep the theme of running the neighborhood as a method of disruption on the table. We both stopped laughing. To maintain integrity, I abstained from voting on the We Run Brownsville project, but the proposal was overwhelmingly approved in late June. By late July, we had created a flier, conducted some outreach, and hired a running coach. And in August, 22 women who had never run before, came out to Betsy Head Park to begin training to complete the East New York 5K race planned in October in just 8 weeks. Since that time, we have moved from seasonal to year-round programming, completed a total of nine 5k races, produced a two-mile fun run in Brownsville, and now boast a roster of over 100 participants, 8 professional coaches, three therapists, and one social worker. 

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