Running is My Activism

Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL

Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL

By Ashlee Lawson

When we think about activism, we often start with big moments in history such as the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements of the past or the Black Lives Matter and LGBT Rights Movements taking place today. These important movements have each been catalysts for change both internationally and in local communities across the nation.

The activists who have been at the forefront of these movements--Rosa Parks, The Greensboro 4, Laverne Cox; and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi of Black Lives Matter--each became the faces and advocators for these campaigns, pushing for the social change they wished to see in the world.

These movements and these people have undoubtedly done incredible work to change narratives, policies and systems in our country so far. In the past, I might have looked at these people’s individual and collective contributions to history and felt intimidated, as if these people have done things so grand and noble, that I could never hope to do the same.

Today, however, I know differently. Activism comes in many forms. And I’ve learned that I can make a difference in my community and beyond, creating social change in a different, but similarly impactful way.

Don’t get me wrong; I never saw myself as an activist. It wasn’t until I realized that the work I am so passionate about is actually creating incredible change in people’s lives, that I realized I’d found my path to advocacy.

Running as a Movement

Ashlee leading a run for a RUNGRL event. Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL.

Ashlee leading a run for a RUNGRL event. Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL.

It started with just me, a distance runner, getting my miles in. I started running about six years ago, completely selfishly. It was (at the time) a free way to insert a healthy habit into my life. Slowly, my friends began to join me on runs. Then, strangers began cheering me on from the sidelines and sharing that I’d made them feel as if they could do the same. By putting one foot in front of the other, on each run, I was leading a movement. Instead of in the traditional ways one might think of, such as a literal march or protest, I was leading people to think about healthier habits and leading healthier lives through my example.

Next, I found District Running Collective (DRC), the only D.C.-based run crew whose mission is to change the way people view running. As a leader and captain of DRC, it’s my responsibility to ensure everyone leaves each run, each race, each event better than they showed up. There is nothing more encouraging than seeing someone go from struggling through their first couple miles to challenging themselves to do something they never thought they could do, such as running a half- or even a full marathon.

The joy I get from motivating others as a run coach ultimately helped motivate me to want to advocate in the same way for a group I feel is severely underrepresented--Black women. Black women are disproportionately affected by diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, as well as mental health issues. My activism for Black women takes the form of prioritizing physical and mental health through running and wellness initiatives.

In 2017, along with five of my running friends, I worked to create RUNGRL, a platform advocating for Black women’s wellness through the vehicle of running. One of my proudest initiatives to date, my friends and I have taken it upon ourselves to create a space that didn’t previously exist, to fill a void in the way Black women’s stories are shown to the world and to affect the way the world sees us as Black women.

Ashlee Lawson speaking at RUNGRL’s event, Miles + Mimosas: Work and Wellness on Oct. 14, 2018. Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL

Ashlee Lawson speaking at RUNGRL’s event, Miles + Mimosas: Work and Wellness on Oct. 14, 2018. Photo: Maya Aridi for RUNGRL

By creating a space that is specifically ‘for us and by us’, we are influencing the narrative of what it means to be a runner. My activism is for Black women, to have a profound impact on the health and lives of the women in my community. RUNGRL is also advocacy for myself. I want to see myself represented and I know that others feel the same way.

As you think about activism and how you create the change you would like to see in the world, I encourage you to look outside of “typical” activism paths and think more broadly.

Are you already using something you’re passionate about to make a difference in your school, in your community or at home? That makes you an activist. If you aren't already, find what cause is important to you and get out there and start changing lives. You have the power to create incredible change in any area you choose, right now.

My name is Ashlee. Running is my activism. What’s yours?


Ashlee Lawson

Co-founder and CEO