T. Morgan Dixon: I would like to tell you about the most powerful woman you've never heard of. This is Septima Clark. Remember her name: Septima Clark. Dr. King called her the "the architect of the civil rights movement," because she created something called Citizenship Schools. And in those schools, she taught ordinary women the practical skills to go back into their communities and teach people to read. Because if they could read, they could vote. Well, these women took those organizing skills, and they became some of the most legendary civil rights activists this country has ever seen.
Women like Diane Nash. You may know her. She orchestrated the entire walk from Selma to Montgomery. She was a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and they integrated lunch counters, and they created the Freedom Rides.
Or you may remember Fannie Lou Hamer, who sat on the floor of the Democratic National Convention and talked about being beaten in jail cells as she registered people to vote in Mississippi.
And her most famous student, Rosa Parks. She said Septima Clark was the one who taught her the peaceful act of resistance. And when she sat down, she inspired a nation to stand.
These were just three of her 10,000 students. These women stood on the front lines of change, and by doing so, they taught people to read in her Citizenship School model and empowered 700,000 new voters. And that's not it. She created a new culture of social activism. Pete Seeger said it was Septima Clark who changed the lyrics to the old gospel song and made the anthem we all know: "We Shall Overcome."
Vanessa Garrison: Now, many of you may know us. We are the cofounders of GirlTrek, the largest health organization for Black women in America. Our mission is simple: ask Black women, 80 percent of whom are over a healthy body weight, to walk outside of their front door every day to establish a lifesaving habit of walking; in doing so, ignite a radical movement in which Black women reverse the devastating impacts of chronic disease, reclaim the streets of their neighborhoods, create a new culture of health for their families and stand on the front lines for justice. Today, all across America, more than 100,000 Black women are wearing this GirlTrek blue shirt as they move through their communities — a heroic force.
We walk in the footsteps of Septima Clark. She gave us a blueprint for change-making. One, to have a bold idea, bigger than anyone is comfortable with. To two: root down in the cultural traditions of your community and lean heavily on what has come before. To three: name it — that one thing that everyone is willing to work hard for; a ridiculously simple goal that doesn't just benefit the individual but the village around them. And to, lastly: never ask permission to save your own life. It is our fundamental right as human beings to solve our own problems.
TMD: So to the women all out there gathered in your living rooms, rooting for us, acting crazy on social media right now — we see you.
We see you every day. We love you. You are not alone, and our bigger work starts now.
VG: You got us onto this stage — your leadership; auditing blighted streets in Detroit; working with hospitals and health care systems in Harlem; praying over the streets of Sacramento, Charlotte, Brooklyn, Flint and every community that has seen trauma; changing traffic patterns, making your streets safer; and most importantly, standing as role models. And it all started with your commitment to start walking, your agreement to organize your friends and family and your belief in our broader mission.
TMD: It's important to me that everyone in this room understands exactly how change-making works in GirlTrek. One well-trained organizer has the power to change the behavior of 100 of her friends. We know that is true, because the [1,000] women blowing up social media right now have already inspired over 100,000 women to walk.
But that is not nearly enough. And so our goal is to create critical mass. And in order to do that, we have an audacious plan to scale our intervention. A thousand organizers is not enough. GirlTrek is going to create the next Citizenship School. And in doing so, we will train 10,000 frontline health activists and deploy them into the highest-need communities in America. Because when we do, we will disrupt disease; we will create a new culture of health. And what we will do is create a support system for one million Black women to walk to save their own lives.
And our training is unparalleled. I just want you to imagine. It's like a revival, tent-like festival, not unlike the civil rights movement teach-ins. And we're going to go all across the country. It is the biggest announcement this week: Vanessa and I and a team of masterful teachers, all to culminate next year, on sacred ground, in Selma, Alabama, to create a new annual tradition that we are calling "Summer of Selma."
VG: Summer of Selma will be an annual pilgrimage that will include a walk — 54 miles, the sacred route from Selma to Montgomery. It will also include rigorous training. Picture it, as women come to learn organizing and recruitment strategies, to study exercise science, to take nutrition classes, to learn storytelling, to become certified as outdoor trip leaders and community advocates.
TMD: This is going to be unprecedented. It's going to be a moment in time like a cultural institution, and in fact, it's going to be the Woodstock of Black Girl Healing.
VG: And the need — it's more urgent than ever. We are losing our communities' greatest resource. Black women are dying in plain sight. And not only is no one talking about it, but we refuse to acknowledge that the source of this crisis is rooted in the same injustice that first propelled the civil rights movement.
On December 30 of 2017, Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, a Black man who died on the streets of New York from a police choke hold, passed away of a heart attack. Erica was just 27 years old, the mother of two children. She would be one of 137 Black women that day — more than 50,000 in the last year — to die from a heart-related issue, many of their hearts broken from trauma.
The impacts of stress on Black women who send their children and spouses out the door each day, unsure if they will come home alive; who work jobs where they are paid 63 cents to every dollar paid to white men; who live in communities with crumbling infrastructure with no access to fresh fruits or vegetables; with little to no walkable or green spaces — the impact of this inequality is killing Black women at higher and faster rates than any other group in the country. But that is about to change. It has to.
TMD: So let me tell you a story. About three weeks ago — many of you may have watched — Vanessa and I and a team of 10 women walked 100 miles on the actual Underground Railroad. We did it in five days — five long and beautiful days. And the world watched. Three million people watched the live stream. Some of you in here, the influencers, shared the story. Urban Radio blasted it across the country.
VG: Even the E! News channel interrupted a story about the Kardashians — which, if you asked us, is just a little bit of justice —
to report that GirlTrek had made it safely on our hundred-mile journey.
TMD: People were rooting for us. And they were rooting for us because in this time of confusion and contention, this journey allowed us all to reflect on what it meant to be American. We saw America up close and personal as we walked. We walked through historic towns, through dense forest, past former plantations.
And one day, we walked into a gas station that was also a café, and it was filled with men. They were wearing camo and had hunting supplies. And out front were all of their trucks, and one had a Confederate flag. And so we left the establishment. And as we were walking along this narrow strip of road, a few of the trucks reared by us so close, and out of their tailpipe was the specter of mob violence. It was unnerving.
But then it happened. Right on the border of Maryland and Delaware, we saw a man standing by his truck. The tailgate was down. He had on a brown jacket. He was standing there awkwardly. The first two girls in our group, Jewel and Sandria, they walked by because he looked suspicious.
But the bigger group, we stopped to give him a chance. And he walked up to us and he said, "Hi, my name is Jake Green. I heard you on Christian radio this morning, and God told me to bring you supplies." He brought us water, he brought us granola, and he brought us tissue. And we needed tissue because we had just walked through a nor'easter; it was 29 degrees, it was sleeting on our faces. Our sneakers and our socks were frozen and wet and frozen again. We needed that tissue more than he could have possibly understood.
So on that day, in that moment, Jake Green renewed my faith in God for sure, but he renewed my faith in humanity.
We have a choice to make. In America, we can fall further into the darkness of discord, or not. And I am here to tell you that the women of GirlTrek are walking through the streets with a light that cannot be extinguished.
VG: They are also walking through the streets with a mission as clear and as powerful as the women who marched in Montgomery: that disease stops here, that trauma stops here. And with your support and in our ancestors' footsteps, these 10,000 newly trained activists will launch the largest health revolution this country has ever seen. And they will return to their communities and model the best of human flourishing. And we — we will all celebrate. Because like Jake Green understood, our fates are intertwined.
Septima Clark once said, "The air has finally gotten to a place where we can breathe it together." And yet, the haunting last words of Eric Garner were: "I can't breathe." And his daughter Erica died at 27 years old, still seeking justice. So we — we're going to keep doing Septima's work until her words become reality, until Black women are no longer dying, until we can all breathe the air together.