Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks-Rocha weren't always on the same page when it came to exercise. Ashley was always an athlete and played collegiate soccer. "[But] I like to say that the pinnacle of my athletic career was junior pro basketball in elementary school," Carey says. "I was an expert couch potato."
However, inspired by her sorority sister Hicks-Rocha's interest in running, Carey started her own running journey and ended up falling in love with it. But "we quickly realized there weren’t a lot of minorities in this space," Toni says: specifically, black women.
"[Running] felt like this super exclusive club," she explains. "I remember going to my first 10K. I was standing in the crowd, looking around, and thinking in that moment, There’s no one out here that looks like me." Out of that feeling of isolation, she and Ashley created Black Girls Run, a network of more than 200,000 people that started as one humble Facebook group.
Below, we talked to Carey about being inspired to get into fitness and why she and Hicks-Rocha felt so strongly about founding Black Girls Run.
How did you and Ashley meet?
"It was my freshman year of college and we pledged the same sorority — we're both members of Alpha Kappa Alpha. When we both pledged, she became the president and I was the treasurer. We didn’t like each other at first, but we realized we worked really well together and we always knew that we would start something together. I guess the writing was on the wall that we would create something pretty amazing."
"There’s so many misconceptions about this great thing that we love."
What was it like to see Ashley start running? How did that inspire you to start too?
"I just didn’t get it. I was the biggest naysayer. I was still trying to wrap my mind around what exercising really meant. In college, I would go to the rec center and maybe get on the elliptical, but it was more of a social exercising. [But Ashley] became vegan at one point, and did a complete 180 in terms of her lifestyle. It was just so inspiring to see the physical changes, but she also just seemed to be in a completely different mindset and seemed to have a lot more stability."
Why did you decide to start the group?
"There were a few different things that led up to us launching Black Girls Run. The first was that whenever we would mention running or training for a race to our friends and family, they had the same reaction [I initially had] of like, 'What? I don’t get it.'
"Secondly, back in 2008 before we officially started officially Black Girls Run, that’s when the obesity epidemic became front and center in the news. It was at start of the Obama administration and we were talking a lot about health and wellness at that point. People were starting to realize we have a huge problem.
"The third thing that happened was that, when we were well into running, Ashley invited me to a group run in Charlotte. I was super apprehensive about going. I remember that day I was praying it would rain and I wouldn't have to go. We arrived and the only person who spoke to us asked if we were sure we were in the right place, which was a little weird because we had on running shoes and clothes. And they ended up leaving us out on the course. We were a little lost at that point. It just seemed like we were a big inconvenience to this group run. I remember specifically thinking after that, I never want anyone to feel the way I'm feeling right now because we love and enjoy running so much.
This gives me hope that, in this political climate, you can come together and make change happen.
"The final thing was that I remember getting my first pair of running shoes and being really excited about it. I called my mom and her response was, 'Toni, you and Ashley are always up to something, running is something white girls do. Furthermore, your uterus is going to fall out.' Ironically enough, that's the reason women weren’t able to compete in the marathon until the late '70s.
"Ashley and I came together and said, 'This is ridiculous, there's not a lot of women out there, our community needs it, and there’s so many misconceptions about this great thing that we love.'"
How does it feel now to look back on this community you've created?
"It’s been really gratifying. In terms of impact, we have really just scratched the surface. The community aspect has just been so important, and seeing how technology can help community gives me hope in this political climate that you can come together and make change happen. That's been biggest takeaway: the power of community and technology to make generational changes. We're starting with women who are in their 30s and 40s, but really who we’re impacting are their children because they see their moms exercising and running."