Three years ago next month, Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man, was murdered while he was out for a run. That was the catalyst for the formation of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), which envisions a running industry committed to racial justice. Its goals are embodied by its Executive Director, Kiera Smalls, whose personal mission is to connect resources to the people who need them most.
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Kiera began her professional career as a community reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, telling the stories of the unsung neighborhood heroes, the people who were working at a grassroots level “to make communities lively, to make them more accessible, more inviting, and to really make them thrive.” She took what she learned from those community activists and became part of the launch team for Philadelphia’s bike share program, overseeing marketing, communications, and the equity initiatives.
Her job included listening to residents’ concerns about how the program would impact their neighborhoods, and she quickly realized that the people making the decisions were not necessarily the ones who were in the community. That led to her “a-ha” moment, that “I need to get into the rooms where ‘the power’ is being held. I need to figure out how to redistribute it, and I need to figure out how to make sure that the voices in the communities are being heard, and considered, and part of the decision-making process.”
Kiera took on other positions to fight for inclusion for underrepresented groups. She consulted with local races, initiating conversations that they hadn’t had until that point, taking into consideration all of the elements of putting on a race, from beginning to end.
“Who’s the announcer at these races? It’s the same person for the last 30 years. They’re probably great. But let’s give an opportunity for some more voices. Do we do a land acknowledgement? All those other moments: the volunteers, the contractors who are paid, and then that end experience. I’m so excited; I finished. And who’s around me? What’s around me? If I go to an open field, there’s beer, there’s a massage table, there’s all these businesses, but who owns these businesses and who are providing these experiences and getting paid to have those opportunities to be there?”
“These are examples,” she explains, “of when we say, ‘representation matters; inclusion matters.’ They matter because when someone says, ‘I’m going to go sign up for a race,’ they’re thinking about all of these things. And if you are someone who doesn’t think about these things, what a privilege, because there are countless people who have to think about these things.”
In 2012, she and her friend, Takia McClendon, launched a fitness community, City Fit Girls. She was on a health and fitness journey, and going into gyms and health clubs, she felt like, “I was the only one, whether it was my race, whether it was my body size, whether it was my pace. And I said, “This is ridiculous.’” She said to Takia, “Let’s create our own thing, and we want to make it so that it’s accessible to all women, regardless of their race, pace, shape, socioeconomic status, or assigned gender at birth.”
City Fit Girls flourished until, along with everything else, its activities were halted by the pandemic. During that time, she and Takia realized that although they had always said that City Fit Girls was all-inclusive, the name didn’t align with that, and, Kiera says, “We were okay with guys joining. So it was, ‘Look, everybody can join,’ and after the pandemic, everybody needs this, right? So that’s kind of how it evolved.” They relaunched as “Strides,” with the City Fit Girls spirit still intact, and with an even more inclusive community.
At the start of her career, Kiera worked within communities, hoping that the resources they needed would come. But she realized,“If we do that, we’re just gonna be hoping forever.” She resolved to “go into the system, go into these rooms, build these relationships, learn about what opportunities and resources exist, and then figure out a way to redistribute them to the communities.” It was intimidating at first; she feared that she could be putting her job on the line. But, she says, “I reminded myself that this is not just about me; this is bigger than me. And every time I did that, I got the courage. Every time I did that, I pulled on the strength from the communities;I pulled on my upbringing, and my experiences there. I pulled on the strength that I got from my grandma and from my mom, and then that gave me the courage.”
She still understands, though, how overwhelming it can seem to challenge the status quo. One thing that helped her to navigate those feelings was surrounding herself with people who had different life experiences from hers. “Take that step to educate yourself, to unlearn, to go into different neighborhoods, to different events,” she says.
“We have to be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves. We have to be mindful of the stories we hold on to and how much power we give it,” she continues. “We have all figured out how to navigate a different culture, if we’ve had the privilege to travel to a different city, state or country. And so if you find that it’s much harder with the Black community, or much harder with the Indigenous community, or much harder with LGBTQ, why is that? It’s not about you, but you have that responsibility to do that unlearning and to feel the fear and do it anyway, because so many of us do that every single day without the luxury of having the option.”
Photo credit: Rook Productions Media / Pete Santamaria.
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“Thank you” to Kiera! We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.