Shawna Held, a native Washingtonian, is slowly learning that the rain excuse isn’t working in California, where she moved to attend graduate school in Women’s Studies. She hopes to one day be that fun and wacky Women’s Studies Professor you wish you had or be a director of a Girls on the Run program. When she isn’t writing papers she is running, or at least thinking about running, which totally counts.
In women’s studies, there is an inherent challenge in taking the theories from the thick pages of our texts and putting them into practice with real people. When this actually happens it is called praxis.
As someone who is allergic to complicated theories, I struggled for years to realize that I was practicing praxis while doing my two favorite things: running and empowering young women. My time with Girls on the Run has not only been my example of positive praxis, but my inspiration.
I have had the privilege to volunteer as a Girls on the Run (GOTR) coach both in Washington state and San Diego. My experiences have been widely different and exceptionally rewarding. If you do not know, Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a program for elementary school girls that empowers them through running. Coaches lead weekly sessions about everything from positive body image and nutrition to the negative impacts of bullying, and all of these lessons somehow involve running to prepare for the season-ending 5K run. (For more information on GOTR, I highly suggest you check out their website, which explains their history much better than I can.)
While I cannot explain everything about GOTR, I can write about my own love of GOTR.
Below are five reasons why I love GOTR and why you should too:
Each GOTR site (often an elementary school) has anywhere from 3-5 volunteer coaches that meet up once or twice a week to coach a GOTR team. The coaches I have worked with are up there on the upper echelons of my feminist heroes. Often these women are community leaders, teachers, businesswomen, or students, and they all RULE. I am convinced that I am the luckiest GOTR coach ever because I am constantly placed with women who often serve as mentors for not only the girls, but for me.
In particular, the coach I first worked with, now the director of a GOTR, is probably the person I most want to be. Besides being one of Bellingham’s fastest runners, she is the nicest person I have ever ran across. (Not literally, since she runs a mile in half the time I could, but I digress.) The way that she talks to girls and the way that she makes them believe that they are special is without a doubt awe-inspiring.
I do not need a feminist theory to tell me how these coaches put theory into action. With every stride amongst the girls and word of encouragement, GOTR coaches are employing feminist actions daily: empowerment through encouragement, strength through listening and most all, learning through love.
I am constantly in awe of the way that my other coaches diffuse tense situations, increase encouragement, and find it in their hearts to give and give after their own long days at work and their own struggles.
If you have ever been a GOTR coach I admire you. Thank you.
This past year, when one of my fellow coaches got sick, I got a personal phone call from GOTR, encouraging phone calls, flowers and cards all materialized in the matter of minutes. It was an honor to be a part of this quickly created and immensely supportive community.
Although I just talked about how valuable volunteer coaches are, the GOTR community includes much more than coaches. GOTR is nothing without volunteers. These volunteers for the 5K race range from running buddies, people handing out food, people who organized the 5k and all of the other various and very important volunteers. Running is not necessary to be a part of the GOTR community.
As you can see I’m probably the biggest fan of GOTR. So much so that it involves the whole family- my parents have helped steer hundreds of running girls away from the Canadian border for one 5K and came back with stories and smiles. At another 5K, my dad was a big hit at the Maui mile in 30-degree Washington winter weather, handing out leis to girls and talking about how warm it was in Hawaii.
I have seen high schoolers, grandparents, people on crutches, and city officials all along the day of the 5k cheering on every runner like it was a marathon.
You know how sometimes you pay for races and grumble throughout the race wondering what exactly your money went towards? After grumbling through multiple races, kicking myself for spending money on something not related to either food or school, I have become quite cynical about paying for races. GOTR has helped transform me from a Scrooge with running shorts to Richie Rich when it comes to paying for anything Girls on the Run related.
GOTR money goes directly to the girls. Look at their shoes. This year at my scholarship site, all of the girls received new shoes. For some of these girls, these shoes were the first pair of shoes that they have had that are not only new, but theirs. This sense of ownership is powerful and is a powerful reminder that money can sometimes buy happiness.
That being said, money from GOTR also goes towards scholarship sites, entire GOTR sites that participants only have to pay a minimum fee to participate. Scholarship sites are amazing as are the donors that help make it possible for girls to participate regardless of financial ability to pay.
I love GOTR. My experience as a coach and a running buddy for more than five seasons has transformed me. I came into GOTR wanting to make a difference in the lives of young girls, when instead the girls have made a difference in my life. Even while drowning in graduate school stress, my time coaching GOTR has been incredibly valuable.
In GOTR, I have learned that the socially just and empowering world I am fighting for is necessary. I have learned that eating disorders and body image have not just affected me, but continue to affect the incredible girls I have coached. I have learned that the girls are running from many things with reasons that I will never know, but at least I can point them in the right direction.
I cry at every final 5K race. I cry because I never know how to tell the girls how much they have inspired me. I cry because I am witnessing a massive celebration of girl empowerment in a world that continues to disempower girls daily. You can see girls start to believe in themselves every day at practice, but the 5k is a truly beautiful example of female empowerment.
I ran my first marathon with a GOTR shirt on, reliving the highlights of the season as I struggled past miles I never thought I could run. I continue to run marathons with new inspiration and new motivation from GOTR.
Maybe GOTR won’t transform you as much as it did for me, but it will inspire you. Don’t we all need a little bit of inspiration?
5. The Girls
Lastly, I cannot talk about Girls on the Run without talking about the girls. There is never a practice or a final race where I am not impressed or empowered to make positive change. I owe this all to the girls.
My first GOTR 5K, I ran with a quiet girl, who had started walking about a mile away from the finish line. As she passed the cheering volunteers, she started to pick up her pace and began running. I heard her talking to herself and as I caught up with her, I realized that with every step she was saying, “I can do it, I can do it.” And she did. I wonder if she thinks of that moment now when she thinks she cannot do something. I hope she realizes that she has done something before and she can do it again.
At the most recent 5K, I ran with a girl who was suffering from terrible asthma. She would walk to catch her breath and then would sprint forward wheezing, waiting for me to catch her. Near the finish line, she began to catch her breath and got into a stride that she sustained until they put a medal over her head. She had made it.
The girls are wonderful mix of personalities, cultures, and attitudes. Every practice was a new lesson in listening for me, and a new lesson in the power of young girls.
While these are only samples of why I love Girls on the Run, I hope that it has brought up your own reasons to love young women’s empowerment. I hope you read this and remember that you too can be “voluntarily awesome” (the slogan on coaches t-shirts this season). Have I convinced you yet?
(In the spirit of full disclosure: I was an intern with Girls on the Run of Northwest Washington and assisted in the planning of two 5k’s during my time there. I have been an assistant coach for GOTR for 3 seasons, a Girls on Track coach for one season and a running buddy. Once I pay off my college loans I plan on bankrolling a Girls on the Run scholarship site or working for Girls on the Run, a combination of the two would be ideal. I love Girls on the Run – obviously.)
Interested in guest-posting at Fit and Feminist? Hit me up at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com!