Inclusive Impact, Partner Spotlights, Systemic Solutions

Meeting the Moment with Vanessa Garrison

By Vanessa Garrison, Co-founder and COO of GirlTrek

December 22, 2020

In 2020, the intertwining and inequitable systems, from health and education to legal and democracy and beyond, in this country were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed and growing call for Black liberation and justice. As part of this year’s Annual Report, we asked nine leaders from the New Profit community what 2020 and these national reckonings looked like for them, their organizations, and the social sector writ large.

Continue reading to hear from Vanessa Garrison, Co-founder and COO of GirlTrek, the largest public health nonprofit for African-American women and girls in the United States. GirlTrek, a New Profit grantee-partner, aims to create the next American civil rights movement centered on Black women walking for healthier bodies, safer streets, and a bold new culture of health liberation. Today over 1 million women (Trekkers) are participating in the movement.

To hear from the other eight leaders and to access more content from the New Profit 2020 Annual Report, click here.

What is the biggest challenge that philanthropy/the social impact sector is/has faced as a result of the events of 2020?

How do we get resources into the hands of the people who are closest to the problem and doing the biggest work? This question is the key challenge that philanthropy and the social impact sector have faced for generations. Philanthropy to date has not been set up to answer this question, instead relying on gatekeeping and other mechanisms that create barriers for those closest to the problem to reaching the resources they need.

In 2020, we have witnessed the systemic inequality that laid the foundation of this country come to the forefront of our collective consciousness and mainstream media in ways that have not been experienced in decades. While the country and the world grappled with a pandemic, renewed calls for racial justice and activism in the wake of police brutality, and an economic recession, the need for a solution to this question has become even more apparent; but I believe that change is coming.

Over the last several months, there has been a positive shift in philanthropy. I have witnessed the sector has become more nimble, more responsive, and more trust-based than ever before. If we can continue on this trajectory, I think we are on the path to solving this challenge and creating deeper impact.

What innovations/solutions did you create in response to the events of this year?

At the onset of the pandemic, we found that we were aptly positioned to deal with the changing landscape. GirlTrek is a responsive movement-building organization. Since our founding, our work has been rooted in engagement with our members—asking what they need and delivering the tools that they need so they can heal and heal others. This has always required us to be nimble, which served us well when we had to move into a virtual space.

Women come to GirlTrek for the community more than anything else, which has often been fostered during group walks—a significant part of what GirlTrek does. COVID-19 immediately stripped away our ability to engage in the way we were accustomed to. Thankfully, what we understood was that what people mainly needed in a time where we were physically distancing was community, conversation, and a platform where we could have very difficult, honest, and open conversations about race. About justice.

To address this need we created Daughters Of, a major digital campaign that brought T. Morgan Dixon (my co-founder) and myself together in conversation with civil rights leaders including Angela Davis, Nicki Giovanni, Dr. Bernice King (daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), and Ilyasah Shabazz (daughter of Malcolm X). These were intentional conversations to remind us that we’ve actually been through tougher times than this and in fact we have the tools, the knowledge, and the skill to move ourselves out of this situation.

It really was the perfect time to bring those conversations to our community and we quickly transitioned into Black History Bootcamp, a live daily conversation where we celebrated our powerful foremothers while walking in our neighborhoods. During Black History Bootcamp we saw the most walking activity we have ever had because we provided a platform where people, although they were walking solo, could feel that they were walking in community with thousands of other people.

We invested in our digital platform, we invested in our community building, we invested in our team, we reached our goal of 1 Million Black women walking for their health and their communities, and we uplifted the message that has always been core to GirlTrek: Black women are leaders and in a time like this the world should be looking to us for answers.

What do we need to do collectively to “Meet the Moment?”

We need to stop doing business as usual. We need to stop pretending as if we are not in a global pandemic. There are so many people who are out of work, don’t have healthcare and are living in communities where they feel unsafe. We have to stop trying to continue with the status quo in the face of the trauma that has been omnipresent in 2020.

Over the last year, I have been troubled to see a push to do more, be more successful, go harder, figure everything out quickly. I don’t think that is what this time calls for. While we must be responsive to our communities, rest is also a revolutionary act.

This time calls for reflection.
This time calls for us to be rooted.
This time calls for us to be brave and courageous around the systems that we can change.
This time calls for us to reconsider the way that we as a philanthropic and nonprofit community engage with each other, how we engage with constituents.

This is the time for us to reconsider, instead of doing business as usual.

To hear from the other eight leaders and to access more content from the New Profit 2020 Annual Report, click here.