Running is a great equalizer. We all have different strides, but the run is a journey we all can start. However, there are still communities that are underrepresented by the running industry. Working to change this is the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), a team of Black, Indigenous, and people of color from running brands, retailers, and runner communities across the U.S. The coalition’s goal is to make sure people of color are represented in ownership and leadership positions; there’s accountability; opportunities for conversation; education through diversity, equity, inclusion, naming systems of racism, and anti-racist training.
To this end, they’re hosting a series of virtual conversations, training, and education sessions. The first conversation on race and running will take place Wednesday, Oct. 28th, from 4-5 p.m. EDT. Panelists will delve into practical ways to have uncomfortable conversations about race and move towards action.
Verna Volker, from the Navajo Nation is a founding member of RIDC. In July she commented on RIDC advisor and Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge co-founder, Teresa Baker’s Diversity Pledge statement on Instagram. “I would love to do this with the running industry,” Volker said. Volker’s involvement with RIDC bolsters her work to amplify Indigenous runners. “Native people in the United States are less than 2% of the population, so when you look at the running industry, the percentage is really small. That’s why I push for more representation,” said Volker, who is the founder of Native Women Running (NWR), an Instagram (@native_women_running) account with 14k mighty followers highlighting the achievements of Indigenous women runners from around the world.
“I always tell the women, this is your land run on it,” Volker said when discussing the brand ethos.“Being an Indigenous woman, we talk about our Indigenous people and how we are resilient. I always knew this, but I don’t think I tapped into that until I ran an ultramarathon,” she continues. With 20 races and two ultramarathons under her belt, the mission of her miles does not end here.
When she is not running, she’s training the minds of second graders in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and four children. HOKA ONE ONE spoke to Volker about the journey of running, empowering Indigenous runners through NWR, and what pushing for a more inclusive running industry looks like.
HOKA ONE ONE: When did you first tap into your athleticism and start running?
Verna Volker: I’ve always been an athlete. In highschool I played basketball and volleyball. I remember hating the running part like sprints when the coach would say run like 20 laps around the court.. After that I started running on and off in my life, but it was never anything that I felt passionate about. In 2007, I ran this little race when we lived in a small town in Nebraska. It was like 2.1 miles. I remember sharing this photo on Instagram where I looked like I was in so much pain. I remember it being really hard.
A year later we moved to Minneapolis. I remember that being probably the heaviest I’ve ever been. I was around 200 pounds. I knew that I needed to work on losing weight and I think it was just a lot of stress. I had a new baby, a preschooler, and a new job. In Minneapolis, we have such great parks and lakes where you can run around. I started running just to get out of the house. In August of 2009, I thought well let me run my first half marathon.
I had no idea about running, personal records, training plans, ect. I’m over here like, well let me just run this race. I remember I was so heavy at the time, but I completed the race. I thought it was like the best thing ever. I was so happy. That’s when I think I got hooked.
HOKA: When you first started running were you part of a run crew?
Volker: I was very intimidated. Here in the Twin Cities area, there are a lot of running groups, but there was this intimidation of “oh I can’t compete” or “oh I’m not fast enough.” There was a fear that I wouldn’t fit in. So I’ve spent a lot of time alone on the trails.
HOKA: How did Native Women Running grow into what it is today?
Volker: I noticed people were sharing their running on Instagram like, “Hey I ran 5.5 miles today” and they would post running selfies. So I started doing that and started growing a following. I noticed that even when I started running I would go to bookstores and look at running magazines, they always had that same type of runner, fit, blond, and young. That to me was not realistic.
Where are people who look like me? Or haven’t been running that long? I started Native Women Running to bring visibility and representation to Native women runners from around the world. NWR also raises awareness around missing and murdered indigenous women, an issue that impacts Native women 10 times more than the national adversage, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. I think as Indigenous women, we can feel like we have a lot against us, but I believe running has become a way for us to heal.
I also started it because in the running world, in the running industry highlighting Native runners was very far and few between. In Native culture, there are a lot of Natives who started running very young. Running is a part of our culture.
HOKA: Can you explain why running is such an integral part of Native culture?
Volker: In Navajo culture, there is the belief that you wake up early and you run to the east to greet the creator, to say your prayers, and connect to nature. I never realized what it meant until I found running. It sort of makes sense why I really enjoy morning runs. I’ve always been an early morning runner, like 5 a.m. It helps you start your day, which makes sense.
I know a Navajo brother that ran in his moccasins in the Boston Marathon, that’s pretty amazing. He is just a reminder of how immersive the culture is to running.
HOKA: What do you think the steps are to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive running industry?
Volker: I think the first step is understanding where we come from, our history apart from stereotypes, inviting us to be a part of boards, and the hiring process at companies. It means a lot to me when organizations invite me to share my perspective to learn about Native culture. I think this is certainly a start.
RIDC will kick off the first in a series of virtual conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the running industry on Wednesday, Oct. 28th from 4-5pm EDT. Registration Link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-talk-about-talking-about-race-tickets-124687366269
Written by Priscilla Ward