In 2012 Tonisia “Toni” Billups was an “empty nest” who wanted to rebuild her health after gaining weight and being diagnosed with diabetes.
A friend invited her to join the chapter of Black Girls Run! In Jacksonville, join a statewide running group formed to tackle a growing obesity epidemic among African American women. She immediately found an encouraging new “sisterhood”. Since then she has been a running coach and personal trainer and local group leader or “ambassador”.
This month she is in the quarterfinals of Muscle & Fitness Hers magazine’s Ms. Health & Fitness 2020 contest, which grossed $ 20,000 and a magazine contribution for the winner.
“Black Girls Run! Means as much to me as so many other women,” said Billups, now 44. “It’s this safe place where women can come together without pretense and move around without judgment.
“Health and fitness are my passions and it has been an absolute pleasure to lead such an amazing group of women,” she said.
The national group, founded in 2009, was driven by dismal data on the health of African American women. Four in five are overweight or obese and have the highest rates of overweight or obesity of any population in the United States, according to the US Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health.
The group now has approximately 225,000 members across the country and 70 local affiliates. Founded in 2011, the Jacksonville area chapter has approximately 4,000 members, with neighborhood groups from downtown to St. Johns County.
The main goal, Billips said, is to reduce obesity rates among black women and the number of those who suffer from chronic illnesses due to poor diet and sedentary lifestyles.
Another goal, she said, is “to dispel the myth that black women don’t run.”
But the name is a misnomer.
Although about 90 percent of the members are African American, the group is open to all women. The only requirement is at least 21.
“Black Girls RUN! is a fitness resource for all women in their quest to achieve and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, ”says Jay Ell Alexander, Owner and CEO of Black Girls RUN!
And they don’t even have to run, they can drive more slowly: it’s about fitness.
“Some are competitive athletes who run while others run or jog or run and others just enjoy running,” said Billups, an oncology consultant in the biopharmaceutical industry.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they ran or walked in neighborhood groups twice a week, all together on Saturdays. They ran in local races like the Gate River Run.
Since the pandemic, such large group runs have been suspended nationwide, so members have made adjustments. Individuals run alone or in small groups of no more than 10 people. They wear masks and walk socially distant from each other.
Members are encouraged to run at least in pairs, especially given the current racist unrest across the country.
“We must have had a few encounters with strange people,” said Billups. “It’s always scary to think that anyone can be harassed, especially because of their skin color. That’s why we recommend running in groups. While we can’t rule out the risk, we can do our part by reducing the risk. There are always a risk. ” Strength in numbers. “
Regardless of the environment or group size, the members’ mantras are “Your Race, Your Pace” and “No Woman Left Behind”.
“We’re all here with a common goal and that is to move on purpose,” she said.
Katina RW Wright joined the local association in the first year of 2011. She stopped participating while pregnant with her first child, but rejoined about a year later.
“It was like I never left. They were so welcoming that I ran with my little one in the stroller. They blessed her with a nickname that has remained to this day,” she said, noting the “Baby Kay” -Nod her own nickname “Kay Dub”. “Some women even took turns pushing my stroller when I was pregnant with my son in 2015. Now that my daughter is old enough to walk with the group, some of the women have slowed down to move with her to run.”
Black Girls Run !, Wright said, “is such a warm sorority and a positive influence on my daughter. Women of all fitness levels are welcome and no woman is left behind. The ladies have become my extended family over the years.”
The Jacksonville area chapter is between 21 and 70 years old and is made up of college students, stay-at-home mothers, and non-employed working women, but corporate professionals, entrepreneurs, law enforcement, and judges. Off the sidewalk, they connect through quarterly social activities and a year-end holiday event, as well as charitable projects like helping run health fairs and adopting families in need during the holidays.
“It makes so many friendships and it’s a great thing to see,” said Billups. “True sorority and lifelong bonds were formed and born through the dedication of women to this group and that is always so inspiring to see.”
Maintaining the bonds during the pandemic has been challenging. But it gave the group a clever theme for the 2020 anniversary, the annual run that celebrated the local group’s start in 2011, which was a 9k run in August. 75 members took part.
“Every year reminds of the respective year … 9K for our nine years. Every year we also come up with an exciting theme to celebrate our activities and this year didn’t disappoint, ”said Billups. “Since we had to navigate through a running group during the time of COVID-19 and distance ourselves socially while masking, we came up with the topic of ‘COVerGirls 9th Edition’.
“I think it was a huge success,” she said.
Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109
BLACK GIRLS RUN!
For more information about the Jacksonville group, send an email to [email protected] For more information on the national group or its philanthropic arm, the BGR! Foundation, go to blackgirlsrun.com.