Alison Désir ran 240 miles from Harlem, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., in time for the women’s march in an effort to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Photo: Courtesy of Alison Désir
As she ran through the cold, inky darkness that makes up a January evening in the Mid-Atlantic, Alison Désir had one thought on her mind: making it to Washington, D.C., in time for the women’s march. Along with three other women, Désirwas leading the 240-mile run from Harlem, N.Y., to the nation’s capital in an effort to raise money for Planned Parenthood—worried the incoming administration would pull funding for the organization.
Désir was tired. But the slight 32-year-old was also energized. Media attention was spreading the news about Désir’s efforts, and throughout the three-day journey, supporters stepped up to donate money, food, and run alongside her Run4AllWomen team. By the time they reached the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Désir’s team had raised over $100,000, far more than the original goal of $44,000.
When she had a chance to catch her breath and reflect on the snowball she had set in motion, Désir knew there had to be a next step. The only question was, what?
“Everyone kept asking, ‘what’s next?’” Désir says. “We had all this excitement and I realized our work had just begun.”
The solution, Désir determined, was to take all that energy and harness it for continued momentum. In April, she took step two in that plan and held a Run4AllWomen Summit in New York at Finish Line Physical Therapy in Chelsea. Attending the summit were 23 new, handpicked ambassadors ready for action, and co-organizers Mary Arnold and Jennifer Villany, who helped Désir create the Run4AllWomen ambassador program.
As part of the Run4AllWomen Summit in New York, the 23 ambassadors did an “art run” through Harlem. Photo: Myles Gaymon
“We learned a lot on our run to D.C.,” Désir explains. “We decided that we needed to develop best practices from that experience and transfer those skills to a network of women.”
By harnessing social media, Désir’s call for a team of women to carry on the Run4AllWomen mission spread quickly. Potential ambassadors applied for the job and then Désir picked those best suited for the intended tasks.
Charlotte Walsh, 50, owner of Boston’s Charles River Running, was among those who applied and was accepted to the ambassador program. She learned about it via a Twitter post and became intrigued.
“The run to D.C. was so inspiring and motivating for women like me feeling stressed about the election and its potential fallout,” she says. “I kept tabs on what Alison was up to following the run and when she made the call for ambassadors, I decided I wanted to be a part of that.”
Once accepted into the program, Walsh joined her ambassador sisters for the training session in April. The day began with an “art run” through Chelsea featuring street art done by female artists, serving both as inspiration and a bonding experience for the women. Together they screened a film about the January run. Then the ladies got down to business and began training for the next steps.
Alison Désir and fellow ambassadors took part in discussions at the summit on next steps for the Run4AllWomen movement. Photo: Jonathan Martinez
From the summit it was decided that the brand ambassadors, who hail from all over the country, will organize their own, local runs to regional Planned Parenthood offices during the second weekend of August. The idea, says Désir, is that running provides a powerful tool for grassroots activism. “There’s empowerment through fitness,” she says. “And we want to elevate the conversation on women’s rights.”
Désir designed the program around four guiding principles:
- We engage in grassroots activism in our daily lives
- We seek to empower others through fitness
- We foster alignment within our communities around a common goal
- We resist the status quo and work tirelessly to advance the conversation around women’s issues.
At the summit, all 23 ambassadors learned how to use running for activism, received specific logistics and planning tools, and fundraising advice. “It’s a daunting task,” Walsh admits, “but that’s part of what appealed to me, especially at a grassroots level.”
Désir says that with this second, bigger effort, she is launching a more intentional movement. “We trained the ambassadors on how and why to tailor the runs to their communities,” she says. “We are united in the common cause to allow access to safe, affordable healthcare.”
Alison Désir, Photo: Jonathan Martinez
Walsh says that the outreach and fundraising takes her out of her comfort zone, and she likes that. “The beauty of it is that we aren’t soliciting corporate sponsorships but touching our communities and forming relationships,” she says. “It’s kind of like a flash mob for running.”
Each ambassador is responsible for designing her own plan and then submitting it to Desir for feedback before launching into action in August. “In many ways, this effort brings us back to what running is all about,” Walsh says. “There’s no charge, no shirt, no bling to participate. It’s just connecting with other runners.”
For her part, Désir never could have imagined that what started as a quiet effort to make a difference in January would turn into such a widespread movement in August. She admits that it has taken over her life. “I had no idea this would happen,” she says. “I’m just happy and privileged to have the resources to use for something like this.”