Alison Mariella Désir, a renowned author, activist and avid runner, spoke as part of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Distinguished Lecture Series on Nov. 15 about how she is making waves in the running industry by challenging the status quo and advocating for diversity and inclusion.
Désir's journey began unintentionally after finding inspiration on social media after witnessing a Black man training for and completing a marathon, she said. This ignited a passion that led her to run her first marathon, discovering along the way the powerful impact running had on managing her depression and anxiety.
Despite earning degrees from Columbia University, Désir said she faced challenges in securing employment while balancing her responsibilities as her father's part-time caretaker. Through her running journey, she identified stark inequalities within the running community, motivating her to address these issues.
Désir founded Harlem Run, a community running group, and launched Run 4 All Women, a movement that has raised over $150,000 for Planned Parenthood and $270,000 for Black Voters Matter. She currently serves as the director of sports advocacy at Oiselle clothing brand and co-chairs the Running Industry Diversity Coalition.
In response to the lack of representation in the running industry, Désir penned her novel, "Running While Black," during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book explores the intersectionality of being part of the running community and being Black.
Désir read a few pages of the book at the beginning of the panel to set the tone, followed by a reflection.
"When I go for a run, I'm not just going for a run,” Désir said. “I’m stepping outside as a Black body in a white world."
She highlighted the struggle against stereotypes imposed by societal expectations, emphasizing the need for inclusivity in the running space.
Désir said she believes in the intrinsic connection between mental and physical health, emphasizing the importance of caring for both aspects. Her PBS show, "Out and Back," showcases her exploration of diverse communities across the United States and their engagement with the outdoors.
Désir was vocal about the normalization of whiteness in the running industry, recounting her experience at a wellness retreat in the early stages of her running career. She said among the 100 attendees, only 10 were people of color, prompting her to create a space for women and feminine people of color in the running industry.
“Whiteness is so normalized that white people see it as just inevitable, as the default,” Désir said. “But for Black people and first-generation Americans, we recognize that white culture is very different from our own culture.”
Because of this, Désir created a wellness retreat for women and feminine people of color in the running industry, a place she said encouraged people to show up as their authentic self.
Désir said as she continues to break barriers, her advocacy for diversity, inclusion and authentic representation remains at the forefront of the running industry's evolution.
Even though she plays many roles in both the running industry and her activism, Désir said working with and getting to know people keeps her motivated.
Playing her various roles within the world of both athleticism and activism, it's the collaboration with individuals that keeps Desir motivated.
“I love working with people, and I love hearing people's stories,” she said.
Désir said she is currently working on a children's book about the first Black long-distance runner, Ted Corbitt, contributing to the representation of Black figures in the running world.