Describing one of their earliest recreational running experiences as being amongst a “sea of white men”, sisters Denise and Julia ‘Jules’ Stephenson are determined to address the lack of diversity in grass-roots running.
Alongside their friend, Trojan Gordan, the three have formed a running group: ‘Emancipated Run Crew’. Founded in London in August last year, the group known as ERC aims to provide a community for black runners.
“We were talking about the fact that when we did organised runs, we didn’t see many black people at all,” says older sister Denise, aged 48. “Jules and I had started running half-marathons and we noticed that no matter where we went, whether it was the Hackney half-marathon or runs in Valencia or Chicago – there were limited numbers of black people.”
“There was nothing local, accessible or diverse that we felt we could belong to,” adds her younger sister Jules.
Both are now avid runners who recall their recent experience at the Vitality Big Half with 20 others from their group as the embodiment of black joy, with spectators cheering on in support. An incredible achievement for ERC who, within the last 12 months, have gone from three founding members to a regular group of up to 40 runners and with the addition of an active community on social media encouraging more black people to run.
Though their experiences as runners are now positive, it hasn’t always been so. In their late 40s, Denise and Jules fall outside of the main target age group for campaigns such as This Girl Can. Having completed multiple marathons across the globe, they pledge to shout from the rooftops about the need for diversity in grass-roots running groups, and both are adamant that they will not tone down their authentic selves. Cultural clumsiness on being asked why they wear headwraps, or being asked – along stereotypical lines – as to why they are not as fast as other black people, are a few examples of micro-aggressions they have faced.
The dearth in representation is painfully apparent to 46-year-old Jules who recalls an experience of joining a local running group and feeling alienated. “A lot of groups I’ve gone to band their runners according to speed, which is totally fine. But I was in the slowest group and I felt like I wasn’t fast enough to be in that group. There was no one looking out for me and I felt really isolated,” she explains.
Based on this experience, they are committed to ensuring that ERC leaves no one behind and is inclusive in ability as well as diversity. “No one needs to feel like they aren’t fast enough. It’s giving people that empowerment that you don’t have to be fast, you just have to run free. You don’t need to compare yourself to anyone else,” says Jules.