Photography: Taylor Rees
“I am the daughter of Carol, who is the daughter of Letha, who is the daughter of Willie.”
T. Morgan Dixon introduces herself with a “daughters of” statement, explaining how looking to her past helps her work from a place of humility and gratitude. Her posture is woven into the fabric of GirlTrek and is the foundation of this innovative movement.
GirlTrek is much more than the largest public health nonprofit in the United States for African-American women and girls. It is a movement that channels the wisdom of the greatest changemakers in history to propel people forward toward their most healthy self, while simultaneously building community and environmental stewardship as a by-product. Just like Morgan looks to her mother and grandmother, GirlTrek looks to the heroes of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to instruct its vision, mission and systems.
Morgan sits down with Rank & File to discuss the power of walking in the footsteps of history’s greatest changemakers to inform our path as we mobilize movements for a better future.
Changemaking Is In Our Blood
“I’ve never been more hopeful about America’s future.” Morgan sees the hustle in the eyes of the American people, feels the hope and trusts that we’re growing into something better. “We’ve survived some tragic missteps as a collective, and the people still here are uniquely positioned to be changemakers.”
GirlTrek operates out of that hustle. Morgan explains that “82% of black women are overweight, and 53% are obese. Every day, 137 black women die of preventable heart disease. That’s every eleven minutes. It’s killing more of us than gun violence, cigarette smoking and HIV, combined.” The crisis is urgent, but GirlTrek desires a change that will last. So they start with one simple action: walking.
“I think we have to be careful as innovators not to have a hubris around what problem-solving and changemaking means.” Morgan knows that there is pressure around the title “changemaker” that suggests something grand, but she believes the everyday actions of individuals drive the most interesting and lasting forms of innovation. She explains, “I think innovation happens all around us, and the moment we stop recognizing, that is the moment we lose our edge.”
Like all Americans, Morgan believes changemaking is in her blood. Her mother was a changemaker when she desegregated her school. Her grandmother was an innovator when she discovered efficient ways to launder people’s clothing and still have time to take great care of her children. Her family is full of women and men who spent their lives demanding rights to a better life for their families and communities. Morgan believes changemaking is a part of who we all are as human beings, but we have to open our eyes to where we’ve come from to see how we move forward.
Along with her history, faith inspires Morgan as a changemaker. To her, the church and social change have always worked together. “The black church has been an engine of social justice in America,” she explains. Morgan believes that what they’re doing through GirlTrek is as much spiritual as it is physical. She says, “When we are talking about inspiration, the word ‘spirit’ is right there in the middle.” GirlTrek is filling an inspiration gap, helping women to be moved to care for their bodies, their families and their communities. “You have to have something that inspires you to take initial action,” Morgan says. Her mother taught her that, “Faith is a stronger word than hope, because faith requires action.” In this culture of inactivity, where black women are dying every single day, Morgan’s radical belief in what connects us all inspires her to keep moving.
Movement Maker Challenge: Open your eyes to see the innovation happening all around you. Through humility, stay true to the values of your past, as you seek simple yet powerful solutions to create a better future.
People’s Innovation and the Civil Rights Movement
GirlTrek’s model flows out of what Morgan calls “people’s innovation,” which is the kind of changemaking on display in the United State’s civil rights history. In order to kickstart their movement, co-founders Morgan and Vanessa dove headfirst into the specifics of the Civil Rights Movement. They tore it apart, peeled back the layers and studied the public heroes, the private heroes, the systems in place and the decisions made.
What they found is that the Civil Rights Movement was not focused on direct service to people, and neither is GirlTrek. “What we are doing is culture-making, creating new norms, new values and really powerful leadership models,” Morgan explains.
From the Civil Rights Movement, they also learned to find their locus of control. In the Montgomery bus boycott, protesters knew they could walk to work, so they didn’t ride segregated buses. They could control their commute, and in that, they were able to make a statement and start a movement. In the health crisis, GirlTrek encourages women to walk themselves to a healthier body. They can take the first steps, and from there, GirlTrek trains them to stand on the frontlines of change in the physical, mental and emotional health of their own communities.
Movement Maker Challenge: Work to identify your locus of control which could spur a movement, and which also has the potential for culture-making, new norms, new values and powerful leadership models.
Defining and Nurturing a System of Change
“Systems of change” move like a wave of progress over the people they impact. Morgan describes a system of change as something that is organic as algae formed in the ocean. “It feeds itself, perpetuates and continues to grow and thrive, because it’s necessary, and because it provides equilibrium in an ecosystem.”
Although a system of change is not contingent on one person, it often begins with one. GirlTrek looked to female heroes throughout history and modeled their approaches to kickstarting effective systems of change. Morgan studied Septima Clark and her dedication to literacy. Septima taught thousands of people in the United States to read so they could pass poll tests that were meant to disenfranchise them from voting at the time. “This single act of teaching people to read might not seem like a civil rights act,” Morgan explains, “just like the single act of walking might not seem like a public health act, but it was super strategic.” Clark also taught more advanced skills, like passive and peaceful resistance, to many of the frontline activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash were just a few of her students who went down in history as powerful changemakers in U.S. history.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Wangari Maathai taught women to plant trees in Kenya. Morgan personally examined how Wangari created a system of change where women could support themselves through planting trees. In her effort to educate women, they collectively planted 50 million trees, reforesting all of Kenya and revitalizing the environment. Their work to provide for themselves and their families through tree planting led to massive economic and environmental progress for their country.
Movement Maker Challenge: Analyze your model to see if there is a hidden system of change. There may be a simple and unrelated action that could spark the movement you wish to see.
In 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland and dedicated the rest of her life to fighting for human rights. She is most known for pioneering and leading slaves in America to freedom through a system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad, and is the U.S. civil rights hero that most influenced the GirlTrek movement. Morgan and co-founder Vanessa carefully studied her life, creating the Harriet Tubman Doctrine, which acts as guiding principles for their women.
Morgan shares the four lessons of the Harriet Tubman Doctrine with Rank & File that can be applied by all who seek to be movement makers for the sake of social change:
1. Don’t wait.
Harriet Tubman started immediately to pursue her most fulfilled life. There were lots of reasons for her to wait. She was married. Her family didn’t want to come with her. It was incredibly dangerous. She was a woman. She had epilepsy. But she knew she needed to go.
“If there is something keeping you up at night, go,” Morgan charges. She believes that the forward momentum of one person is all it takes to spark a movement.
2. Take the risk, learn the way, then come back to get other people.
Once Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom, she didn’t stay there. She went back and worked tirelessly to get her family, her friends and her people to a place where they could live free and abundant lives.
In GirlTrek’s early years, Morgan funded the nonprofit through her own salary as a teacher. “I had to think things through before I asked people to quit their jobs and join me,” she explains. She admits that the early days were full of trial and error, and they failed a lot. They knew they wanted to address a monumental crisis, so it took time to develop a plan for monumental change. “Real, clear vision is important before you ask people to join you. But, once you learn the way, come back and get a sister,” Morgan says.
3. Rally your allies.
Harriet Tubman gave talks in Greenwich, Connecticut. She networked with wealthy women in New York. She appealed to all people — black, white, men, women — to mobilize her movement. She rallied her allies.
Morgan believes that our allies can come from anywhere. She says, “As entrepreneurs, we can get tunnel vision and think we know who can help us, but we have no idea the blessings in store if we open ourselves up to collaboration with people.” Even though GirlTrek focuses on supporting and inspiring black women, Morgan explains that they need women and men of all ages and colors to step in, to help and to join the movement.
4. Live joyfully.
Harriet Tubman lived to be more than 90 years old, and she lived abundantly all of her days. She practiced her faith, stayed connected to the earth by planting trees, and continued to serve others as a human rights activist.
“Take every opportunity to bask in what your hard work has provided for you on a personal level,” Morgan says. It’s tempting to find security in our own brands, but she encourages us to stay grounded in what truly brings us joy.
A movement cannot make a lasting impact if it’s hanging on the inspiration and actions of one person. It’s only when we humble ourselves and link arms with the changemakers of the past and the present that we’ll learn and grow as a people together.
Want to join the movement? On October 6th, in honor of Fannie Lou Hamer’s birthday, use the hashtag #stressprotest and go for a walk, because we’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”