Interview with Dionne Grayman and Sheila Barksdale-Gordon, Founders of We Run Brownsville
Running is a way to progressive community transformation from within.
I recently sat down to have lunch with Dionne and Sheila, Sheila’s family moved to Brownsville in her teens and Dionne is a second-generation resident. Together they launched We Run Brownsville in 2016. They have the playful vibe together of two women who have known each other most of their lives. Over an animated lunch, I learned about their organization and their partnership as leaders.
We Run Brownsville (WRB) is a community-based organization that works to improve health outcomes for women by creating a safe space for women to take ownership of their well-being and cultivate advocacy and leadership skills through running. (Brownsville is in Brooklyn, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know New York City geography.)
How did you get We Run Brownsville off the ground?
“We had this idea to start a running group to empower women to prioritize their self-care despite very real barriers of time constraints and adequate resources. We wanted to change mind-sets so that women in our community would realize how important it is for them to look after themselves too. In 2015 we applied for a small grant and partnered with our local health center to recruit women. We tabled, we handed out flyers, and we talked! We launched our first cohort of 22 women in 2016 in an 8-week program that finished with them all running 5 km.
“We celebrate our participants and help them feel valued and worthy. And there is so much power in getting women together. Take Miss Jennette, probably in her 50s or 60s, and at one point in our program she was crying. When we asked why, she said that it was the first time as an adult that she could remember being able to touch her toes.” That was a celebration for the entire group, not just Miss Jennette. One of our core values is joy!”
“The two crowd-funding campaigns that we did through ioby gave us our first big fundraising successes. That was motivating for all of us.” (Note: I am a former board member of ioby, and big fan of its work helping community groups organize and raise funds on its platform.)
What are your most important leadership qualities?
Sheila: We complement each other. I’m focused and I’m organized. And I accept that change is constant and can adapt quickly.
Dionne: I’m intuitive and lead through empathy. I connect through passion.
Sheila: I expect excellence and believe in giving people the support they need to be excellent.
Dionne: I’m good at meeting people where they are. My currency is communication.
Sheila: I put Dionne’s thinking in buckets and give it order. We balance each other. Oh yes, our partnership as leaders is an extension of our friendship of 30 plus years, definitely.
What’s next for We Run Brownsville and both of you?
“We both work full-time, are raising families and can't provide the hands-on attention to WRB needed to see it thrive and grow in an intentional and sustainable way. Our ultimate goal is for both of us to work at WRB full-time...but one step at a time.
Right now, we need to hire a full-time staff person to manage the day-to-day operations.”
How can people find out more about We Run Brownsville and how they can support you?
Our current crowd-funding campaign
Our website is under construction