IT’S MAY 2019, and for a Tuesday evening after work, the energy is buzzing. Here, just outside the Riverwest Filling Station—a crafty neighborhood bar near Milwaukee’s East Side—Tenia Fisher gathers the F.E.A.R. running crew in a parking lot to warm up for their weekly evening run. Just one month prior, the members kicked off their fifth season, clocking countless miles, training for marathons, and cheering one another on, in life and on the road. Over the years they’ve become more like family than a running club.
Before embarking on their route, the runners strike a festive pose in front of a chain link fence. “Your favorite crew at it again!” reads the Instagram post. Then they charge out, crisscrossing city streets for four miles before returning to high-fives and dabbing sweat with the napkins pulled out from under celebratory beers back at the bar.
The mission of F.E.A.R. (Forget Everything And Run) is to “bridge the fitness gap” in Milwaukee’s communities of color by increasing representation and exposure to the sport of running, especially long-distance runs. An offshoot of Social X MKE, a diversity and inclusion consulting group for young professionals within the city, F.E.A.R. is made up of mostly millennials and Gen Z-ers boasts one of the most diverse running crews in the city. According to F.E.A.R.’s leaders, Ranell Washington, 38, Social X MKE vice president, and Fisher, 36, who’s SocialX’s director of health and wellness, nearly all of its members are people of color.
F.E.A.R.’s demographic may not be notable in other large cities, but in a region consistently ranked the worst for Black Americans to live, seeing BIPOC running for sport outside the confines of a school campus remains a nascent concept.
Wisconsin’s Black population barely tops 6 percent, but Milwaukee is a minority-dominant city. Still, the poverty rate among Black Milwaukee residents is nearly four times that of white residents, and the city continues to have one of the nation’s widest racial disparities across health, education, neighborhood integration, and male incarceration rates.
Milwaukee’s own civil rights movement of the 1960s, which included demonstrations in the Riverwest neighborhood where F.E.A.R. runs, gave rise to the Cream City’s less popular nickname: “Selma of the North.” In the 60 or so years since, Milwaukee failed to shed this reputation and was the most segregated city in the nation, according to a 2018 Brookings Institution report.
One active F.E.A.R. member is Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes, the state’s highest-ranking Black official. Barnes, who spent part of his childhood in Milwaukee’s infamous 53206 zip code—which has one of the highest rates of incarceration of Black men in the nation—says groups like F.E.A.R. are necessary to break down cultural barriers and provide representation in running. That’s something that Barnes, Fisher, and Washington say is lacking at all levels within the sport.
“We exist to bring people together,” Barnes says of F.E.A.R. “If you truly care about the sport, you’ll want to expand it. To intentionally diversify the sport, it’s imperative to diversify the people. If people don’t see themselves reflected in the [running] community, you’ll drive them away. There is so much more possibility for running.” But first, he says, the running community must acknowledge its own shortcomings.
The diversity divergence begins in youth, Barnes says. While it’s not uncommon to see African runners dominating long-distance running, African American runners are more often stereotyped as succeeding only in middle-distance and sprinting events. But even that presence begins to fade following high school competition. As a track star at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Fisher says she was the lone Black woman on the cross-country team.
“I’ve been running since I was 12,” she adds. “My sport was always white. No one looked like me.”
Fisher’s experience as a Black distance runner is hardly unique. In 2019, GfK MRI reported that just 9 percent of U.S. runners ages 18 and older identified as Black. While the sport has become more diverse since 2011—when Running USA revealed that 1.6 percent of “core runners” were Black, versus 90 percent Caucasian—F.E.A.R. says there is still a long way to go.
The question remains: Why?
Unlike other sports, running doesn’t require expensive equipment or club fees. Anyone with a decent pair of sneakers can take to the road. Still, that fact dismisses a long history of exclusion, economically and otherwise, say Fisher and Washington.
Back when amateur running took off in the 1970s, the sport was often seen as a luxury in BIPOC households. Washington points to the myth within communities of color that Black people don’t run unless they have something to run from. And in vulnerable communities, neighborhoods may be too dangerous or unsafe to run in, preventing potential runners from ever hitting their stride.
“People used to see running as a sign of gentrification,” Barnes says. “You still don’t really see running in majority-Black neighborhoods.”
“When we’re running down [Doctor] Martin Luther King Drive, it opens up people’s eyes,” Fisher says. “People aren’t used to seeing Black runners.”
When Fisher looks to Wisconsin’s running community, she feels the same isolation as a lone Black runner that she’s felt since childhood. She points to the state’s largest running groups, whose members are nearly all white. They’re better funded, secure more brand sponsorships, and tend not to prioritize the state’s BIPOC runners—or even consider them at all, she says. For example, after F.E.A.R. reached out to help promote a 2017 marathon hosted by one of the groups, Fisher was stunned to receive marketing materials with no images of Black runners. She returned the materials with a change request.
The group did oblige and updated its promos to include BIPOC runners, but then it changed ownership and F.E.A.R. never heard back again. A lack of diversity among race organizers, along with a seemingly lax effort to extend host invitations or community sponsorships to Fisher’s group, has only added fuel to F.E.A.R.’s frustration, prompting its calls for inclusion.
“Why aren’t you making more of an effort to reach out?” Fisher says. “Why aren’t we in the marketing? We’re here! But we get no response. That has to change.”
Washington says countering misconceptions about Black runners—that they lack interest in distance running, or that they don’t exist—is a mission that goes beyond race directors and participants. And expanding race routes beyond the comfortable confines of downtown or the lakefront would go a long way toward creating a more inclusive environment, for all runners.
“It would help change the outside perception of the inner city,” he adds. “We always want to expose people to different things. So that the next young Tenia, when she’s driving past and sees a group of diverse people running down the street, says ‘I want to do that one day.’”
A YEAR AFTER that sociable spring run in 2019, news of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder pierced the nation’s consciousness.
The story delivered a gut punch to the F.E.A.R. crew. It left them questioning their place in the world, as young professionals, as people of color, as runners in a community that doesn’t always acknowledge their existence.
“A lot of runs after that were harder,” says Fisher. “If I hear something, I flinch. I have two brothers. I’m terrified for them. We’re encouraging people to run and it’s literally not safe for us to do that. They’re killing us for doing it.”
Milwaukee, like so many American cities, is facing a new era of reckoning in the months following Arbery’s murder, and in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. Through the tumult, the group has found renewed purpose in its stride toward racial inclusion and equality.
“Running is still a white privilege,” Fisher says. “Just being able to walk outside your door and go for a run is a luxury. Being able to run with both of your earbuds in…is a luxury. We encourage all of our runners to be aware of their surroundings and to be able to hear everything around them. Being a black runner in this climate, we are even more on alert.”
The leaders of F.E.A.R. are determined to bring awareness to the realities of BIPOC runners. In the months following Arbery’s death, Washington was interviewed on the running podcast Cream City Pacers, and he and Fisher collaborated on an op-ed for a metro magazine on the impact of Arbery’s murder. Fisher also appeared on Milwaukee news for her role in diversifying a local chapter of the youth empowerment nonprofit, Girls on the Run.
Most importantly, F.E.A.R. continues to run. Despite the simmering fears, despite the stares they receive on runs, and despite the cultural landscape shifting uneasily beneath their feet, they run. After all, change requires movement.
“Our running platform is our form of protest,” Fisher says. “Running has always been my way to express, to motivate, and to inspire.”
The leaders of F.E.A.R. acknowledge that they can’t create this change alone. Washington says it’s important for all running groups to recognize the challenges of BIPOC runners and to find ways to offer their solidarity to help generate change alongside them. In a post-pandemic world, Washington hopes running groups across the country stretch beyond their comfort zone to invite diverse runners into their circle, share resources, and ensure that all runners have a place at the front of the starting line.
“We don’t want to beg you to be an ally,” Washington says. “It’s inherent and you should do the right thing.”
The first step toward change is acknowledging the realities faced by fellow BIPOC runners, Washington says. Despite a successful career in the corporate world, he’s come to realize that his respected status in the boardroom hasn’t exempted him from the pain of racial profiling or discrimination.
When he runs in Atwater Park in nearby Shorewood, an affluent Milwaukee suburb nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan, Washington says he often worries about becoming the next headline.
“There are times when people look at me. If you’re lingering or stretching or whatever, you could ‘fit the description.’ God forbid someone chases you down,” Washington says. “From a Black male’s perspective, stop and frisk, Driving While Black, and finding a safe place to run [are] a couple of factors that individuals worry about with running. The fear of not belonging, and not being able to have the ‘right’ to public streets. That’s what frightens me.”
Barnes recalls a phone conversation he had with a friend who’d recently moved to a new city. As a doctor with a demanding schedule, the only time his friend could run was at sunrise. But instead of waking up early and exploring his new neighborhood, he bought a treadmill. He feared running while Black on his own block.
“I kind of laughed at him at first, saying, ‘You’re a doctor!” said Barnes. “But a while later, it hit me personally. Nobody knows who I am [when I’m out running]. I’m just a regular Black dude running down the street.”
In a sport widely touted for its freedom, BIPOC runners must often contend with a laundry list of unwritten rules beyond keeping an earbud down before they even lace up their sneakers: Don’t leave the house without your driver’s license. Wear a college sweatshirt to convey your education and visually minimize your threat. Avoid dark clothing, not just for safety reasons but so passersby won’t mistake you for a burglar. Smile—at everyone. Be cautious of followers in white subdivisions. Don’t run at night. Maybe don’t wear that hoodie.
“I’m a Black girl running down a block, and that’s something you normally don’t see,” Fisher says of her solo outings. “I’ve never had that feeling of escape [while alone], because you have to make everybody else feel safe.”
“The beautiful thing is with a run crew, you’re obviously safe because you have 10, 20 other people with you,” Washington adds.
NOW IN ITS SIXTH YEAR, with runs held virtually due to the coronavirus, the group sees progress gaining pace, pointing to the number of people across the running world who chose to run 2.23 miles in honor of Ahmaud Arbery and social justice.
“That’s powerful,” Fisher says. “We can change the world through running. It’s happening right before our eyes.”
For Patrick Chaves, a F.E.A.R. crew member since 2018, the group has given him the confidence he craved to feel comfortable in his own skin. A Wisconsin transplant from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, he says the group has stood up for themselves when they get more than stares, including when a woman insisted that the group wasn’t allowed to work out in a parking lot and urged them to leave. “We know it was because of the color of the group,” says Chaves, who is Costa Rican.
Despite the run-ins, F.E.A.R. hasn’t let these incidents crush the group’s morale or deter it from cultivating diversity for the road ahead.
“Milwaukee is the most segregated [city], but F.E.A.R. doesn’t make it feel that way,” he says. “We are just all trying to get to the top, and we motivate each other to do that, whether it is to run a marathon, or get that job. I call F.E.A.R. my family.”
Transforming the face of running in Milwaukee—and the greater running community—is exactly why F.E.A.R. is prepared to dig in its soles and keep pushing for change. Washington and Fisher say the group will continue to run through “all pockets of the city,” advocate for more brand and apparel sponsorships of BIPOC running groups, and demand representation at all race levels, inspiring crew members and the next generation of runners. One mile at a time.
Murals at Riverwest Filling Station (top photo) by Anna Rose Menako (left) and Marlena Eanes (right); Railroad mural along the Beerline Trail by Rozalia Singh; Mural at Riverwest Filling Station (bottom photo) by Marlena Eanes
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