Morgan Dixon
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   United States

Morgan Dixon

GirlTrek offers an innovative solution to the problem of obesity in the Black community that draws inspiration from Black history to contextualize health as a broader civil rights issue, meets women…
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This description of Morgan Dixon's work was prepared when Morgan Dixon was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


GirlTrek offers an innovative solution to the problem of obesity in the Black community that draws inspiration from Black history to contextualize health as a broader civil rights issue, meets women at their point of need with a feasible first step, and turns healthy living into a service opportunity by training women as health leaders in their communities.

The New Idea

GirlTrek was founded on the idea that improving health outcomes for Black women starts with a powerful new narrative about what it means to be Black and healthy. For too long, the African American community – and African American women in particular – have been left behind by the health and wellness movement, and as a result, score worse across most health indicators than any other subgroup in the U.S. GirlTrek was founded as a community-based model to reach this population and give Black women a realistic, culturally relevant path toward better health. The goal is to improve the health outcomes of Black women by increasing activity rates and creating a peer culture of healthy decision-making. GirlTrek empowers women to organize their peers into highly-visible walking groups who then connect to other groups through an active social media presence. This model enables women to connect a national movement into their own neighborhoods. Believing that overcoming a sedentary lifestyle and walking in community is a revolutionary act, GirlTrek seeks inspiration from stories of Black women throughout history who have been at the forefront of social change. Already, thousands of women have joined the movement to heal their bodies, inspire their daughters, and reclaim the streets of their neighborhoods. GirlTrek believes that Black women’s stories, skills, and collective efforts will transform the beliefs, traditions and aspirations of their families and inspire healthier communities across the country. To this end, GirlTrek supports volunteers in becoming storytellers and “culture-creators” who organize and inspire Black women in their communities to live healthier lives. At the core of the GirlTrek movement are three fundamental principles that have been absent from existing wellness programs and initiatives: A feasible first step, relevant cultural context, and the power of community. Community walking is GirlTrek's feasible first step because it is an affordable and accessible form of fitness that meets women where they are both financially and physically. Then, GirlTrek examines cultural tensions and root causes of obesity, including from a social justice perspective. They rely on the narratives of Black women’s history to help motivate women and connect them with their foremothers - making sure that cultural relevance is at the center of their narrative. Last, Morgan knows that women need each other in order to sustain substantive health changes. Women are empowered to build community and their own leadership capacity, all while working together for a common cause. GirlTrek’s efforts to improve the health of Black women and to change the culture of obesity within Black communities will result in improved overall health, decreased rates of obesity, chronic stress, diabetes & other preventable diseases, as well as healthy habit formation and improved familial health. Spilling over from this empowering cultural shift, GirlTrek further reimagines the role of Black women in civic life. As women take control of their own health as well as the health of their families and communities, their sense of self will shift, leading to an increased investment in the world around them.

The Problem

African-American women are disproportionately affected by preventable, obesity-related diseases and are dying at higher rates than any other group of women in America. According to the CDC, 80% of Black women are currently overweight and 53% are morbidly obese. In the Journal of Obesity, Dr. Michael Garko projects that 90% of African-American girls, ages 6-11, will be overweight or obese women by 2034 unless diet and activity levels change. This is a crisis.

A central issue is inactivity and lack of leisure time for self-care. A culture of obesity – working too much, eating cheaper calories, to get more energy, to work more – has far reaching implications that include higher mortality rates, decreased quality of life, greater burden on the health care system, decreased capacity to parent and, overall, it places the Black family increasingly at risk. National surveys show that two thirds of African-American women engage in little or no leisure-time physical activity. This high prevalence of physical inactivity contributes to the disproportionate burden of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and coronary heart disease in this group of women. Strategies are needed to engage African-American women in physical activity to reduce risk of chronic disease and premature mortality.

Traditional public health efforts, from private weight loss companies to clinical interventions, have failed to reverse these disturbing trends because they lack three big things: Affordable, accessible solutions that don't require financial investment or baseline fitness; a program that addresses root causes and cultural tensions, with a narrative that uses language, stories and images that resonate with black women; and an effective strategy for truly empowering and bringing women together in common cause – at the community-level.

GirlTrek believes in the power of walking as a low-cost, high impact solution to this public health crisis and promotes walking as a simple, fun, affordable activity that all women can pursue.

The Strategy

GirlTrek reaches one of the hardest to reach populations by meeting them where they are and providing the tools, inspiration, education, and support they need to begin and sustain a commitment to health.

Open to all Black women across the country, GirlTrek empowers local volunteers to organize their peers into highly visible walking groups. Local groups expand through word-of-mouth, physical visibility, and a strong online presence. Individual groups stay highly connected to the national movement through regular challenges and campaigns, as well as an active social media presence. National awards recognize successes and inspire newcomers.

Nationally, GirlTrek organizes and motivates women by: 1. Honoring history. Relying on the stories of such leaders as Harriet Tubman, GirlTrek reminds walkers that, throughout American history, Black women have walked to change things. Culturally relevant narratives inform messaging and inspire participants. Campaigns range from faith-based walking challenges to history-themed tribute walks. Black history and culture are used as a trigger for the formation of new, healthy habits. 2. Targeting the first step. Research suggests change is a process, and GirlTrek rallies women to take that crucial first step through walking: a universally accessible, low-barrier activity. Girl Trek currently has a strong foothold in six cities (minimum threshold of one City Captain, ten trek teams, and 250 walkers) and is poised to double that number by the end of 2014. Roughly 120 other cities have some GirlTrek presence. GirlTrek has so far prioritized cities where the African-American population is at least 30% of the population. To date, 24,000 women have registered with GirlTrek. 3. Harnessing community. From neighborhood teams to digital platforms, GirlTrek uses the power of peers to build and sustain healthy habits. Their peer network is dynamic and flexible. Women are vested gatekeepers who manage the brand, uphold ground rules, innovate local solutions and share best practices. Reliance on peers ensures that – unlike occasional trips to the gym or doctor visits—the support network needed to sustain behavior change consistently surrounds each woman. GirlTrek’s broader goal is to mobilize women and girls to champion walking as a viable community-based health solution. With thousands of members, GirlTrek will become a powerful advocacy group that leverages its experience, passion and knowledge of walking to advocate for a sensible agenda for what healthy living looks like in their communities. They plan to work with local and national policy makers and coalition partners to author and champion legislation that directly improves the health of African American families by examining and improving built and natural environments and active transportation. GirlTrek seeks to motivate women to walk every day. To do so, they’ve set the following goals: • Inspire New Habits: This year, GirlTrek will award 2,000 “golden shoelaces” to women who cross a critical threshold, from inactive to active, by completing 20 walks within 30 days. Over the next 4 years, GirlTrek will advance this goal using the following measures: 5000 golden shoelaces awarded by November 30, 2015; 10,000 golden shoelaces awarded by November 30, 2016, 25,000 golden shoelaces awarded by November 30, 2017 and remain constant and deepen support by the end of 2018. • Identify and Support Local Health Leaders: This year, GirlTrek will create active role models in African-American communities by inspiring 500 women to create a “habit of walking” within GirlTrek’s 9-month trek season. According to BJ Fogg’s Behaviorial Model (Stanford University), GirlTrek defines a “habit of walking” as an established daily routine in which a woman walks at least 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week, for 3 months or more. This routine serves as a “keystone habit” that inspires broader healthier behaviors. Over the next 4 years, GirlTrek will advance this goal using the following measures: 1,000 active role models by November 30, 2015; 2,500 active role models by November 30, 2016, 5000 active role models by November 30, 2017 and 10,000 active role models by November 30, 2018. • Activate Peer-Networks: GirlTrek supports a national volunteer corps to deliver tailored health solutions to their families, neighborhoods and cities. In 2014, GirlTrek will create on-the-ground inspiration, support, and accountability by organizing 100 active walking teams in strategic cities across the country. An active walking team participates in and meets activity benchmarks for 4 of GirlTrek’s 9 monthly campaigns. Over the next 4 years, GirlTrek will advance this goal using the following measures: 500 active walking teams by November 30, 2015; 1,000 active walking teams by November 30, 2016, 2,500 active walking teams by November 30, 2017 and remain constant and deepen support by the end of 2018. • Build Healthier Neighborhoods: In 2014, GirlTrek will provide direct health programming in 25 African-American communities. To this end, GirlTrek will train a corps of organizers and broker relationships with city or state parks. They will designate health spaces in community centers and establish safe trails in urban neighborhoods with their programming partners. To date, GirlTrek has six cities that meet this threshold and is on the cusp of doubling that number. By 2015, GirlTrek will have a “footprint” in 25 cities. To date, GirlTrek supports over 20,000 walkers, 350 volunteers and inspires an ever-growing network of 175,000 supporters. GirlTrek has a presence in 120 cities, six of whom have reached a critical threshold of one trained City Captain, ten trek teams and 250 walkers. They have focused limited resources into cities where African-Americans make up a minimum of 30% of the population, and are poised to have twelve cities reach the critical threshold by the end of 2014. GirlTrek has a presence in several cities outside of the United States, most notably on U.S. Military bases. GirlTrek is quickly becoming a “go-to” organization in the public health space. They have built partnerships with such companies as REI, Columbia Sportswear, Kaiser Permanente, National Park Service and National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). They have also been invited to lead walks for the NAACP and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign. Partnerships such as these provide valuable resources and media attention, further expanding GirlTrek’s reach. GirlTrek’s long-term vision is to improve the health outcomes of Black women by increasing rates of activity and creating a peer culture of healthy decision-making. Through measures of baseline indicators (BI), Previous Year Physical Activity Recall (PYPAR), 12-week blocks of Moderate Physical Activity (MPA), and Perceptions of Support (POS), GirlTrek is able to identify a positive correlation between program participation and the formation of healthy habits.

The Person

Morgan came from a family of sharecroppers who always found a way around roadblocks and who deeply understood the power of community. From a young age, she identified as a leader and took risks to change social norms. After moving from a predominantly Black community in Kansas to an almost entirely white school in California, Morgan continued to lead—often finding herself the first African-American in her school to hold certain leadership positions. The first in her family to graduate college and get a high-paying job, Morgan saw the trappings that came with wealth. She quickly turned her focus back to changemaking and joined Teach for America. Here, she learned a great deal about the failing education system—and witnessed the power of unorthodox approaches to mobilizing young people and their families for change. Morgan is a bold social entrepreneur who doesn’t see a roadblock when she hears the word, “no.” Instead, she seems to always find a way around obstacles. After her experiences as a teacher, Morgan set audacious goals for changing education—then took bold steps to begin reaching those goals. She quickly found herself at the forefront of the education reform movement in New York City. Morgan’s passion for Black women’s health began with her students. She and her co-founder, Vanessa Garrison, saw that something needed to be done about the health of girls in their communities. After trying to start a girl-focused hiking and health program, the two friends quickly realized that real change wasn’t going to come unless they transformed the health of the mothers who were setting the example for their daughters. Drawing inspiration from Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hammer, Ella Baker, and Septima Clark, the two friends also knew that community and changemaking had to be at the core of building GirlTrek. They continue to challenge themselves, each other, and women across the country to take time for self-care every day, transforming this effort from a luxury to a revolutionary act.

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