The running community has gone through an awakening of sorts in the past year or two. “Some people are finally coming to recognize that these false notions that everyone has equal access to our sport, that our sport is super accessible and super welcoming, that all you need are running shoes—there’s been a realization that that’s not the case, depending upon your race and other intersectional identities,” says Alison Mariella Désir. She has helped push the running industry toward this recognition in several areas, including as Oiselle’s director of sports advocacy and as co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, and through writing her forthcoming book, The Unbearable Whiteness of Running.
Désir has seen signs of progress. “At least for Black and other people of color, we can finally feel like we can speak the same language with some folks in the industry,” who previously lacked awareness of how people of color experienced running and the industry, says Désir, who is also the founder of Harlem Run.
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Brands have also improved representation in marketing, but that’s the low-hanging fruit, Désir says. Sometimes campaigns feature Black people but lack diversity behind the scenes, for example: “There’s no Black person doing hair and makeup, or there’s no Black person behind the camera or coming up with the storyline,” she says.
At Oiselle, Désir’s work includes building community, making the Haute Volée elite team more diverse, and expanding the charitable Bras for Girls program. Désir has her own Oiselle collection that launched recently, built around the idea that “comfort and style belong in all places, and outdated ideas of professionalism are incompatible with our life,” she says.
The Unbearable Whiteness of Running, due out next fall, shows how history is still alive in the present, Désir says. The U.S. moved from slavery to segregation, and then to de facto segregation with housing policies and other lingering inequities. “All of those things are descendants of slavery and ways in which this initial idea of racial hierarchy has persisted. I wanted this book to show how running developed within this environment, so there’s no way that running or anything else could be untouched by it.”
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The book also chronicles Désir’s personal journey “navigating white spaces my whole life, and coming into the running industry and realizing that it was another white space to navigate,” she says. “And yet at the same time, running grounded me and has given me my mental health, my community, my partner, my son—it has given me so much. It’s grappling with that sort of cognitive dissonance and then what it means to be active in changing the running industry for the better.”
This story is part of the “Power Women of 2022” collection. You can find the full list of 15 women making a difference in running here.