A candid conversation with the co-chair of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition and Oiselle’s Director of Sports Advocacy

By Dawna Stone

Alison Desir is changing running for the better.

Her journey as a runner began, like so many do, as a personal challenge. But after completing her first marathon, she wanted to help others achieve the same experience and started a community group, Run Harlem, that continues to thrive today. Over the last year, Desir has been a force in the movement for improved access and racial inclusion in road running, and she currently co-chairs the Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), an organization that is working to “create a more equitable and inclusive running industry where race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, immigration status, socioeconomic status, and ability do not serve as barriers for full enjoyment.”

“We are looking at the ways that historically, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) have been made invisible in this industry, both in the community and in positions of power,” Desir said of RIDC’s work. The group has recently earned non-profit status and will soon begin looking for an executive director.

RIDC provides resources and education for events and race directors who want to produce inclusive, safe and welcoming events for all. The running world has long been an overwhelmingly white space, and Desir’s voice is one of many now working to change that. She’s currently writing a book about the experience of BIPOC participants in the sport and revisits the last running boom through their experience. Earlier this year, she was named Director of Sports Advocacy for Seattle-based women’s running brand Oiselle.

I was grateful for the chance to sit down with Alison recently to discuss how race directors can take the first steps to improve their events, building community at Oiselle, and much more. Read on to join the conversation. And as always, you can find the full video of our chat on Running USA’s YouTube channel, which includes extra content like one of Alison’s bucket list races and what she likes best about living in Washington state.

(Ed. note: Interview questions and responses have been condensed for clarity.)

Dawna Stone: You have a relatively new role at women’s running brand Oiselle and you are the Director of Sports Advocacy, is that correct? Tell us about what that means and what you’re working towards in this role?

Alison Desir: This is a great time to talk about it.  We just came off a full week of what we’re calling Oiselle Days, where we brought all staff back together for the first time since the pandemic, masked indoors and COVID-safe. We brought folks back together to reconnect and really think about where we are going with the brand and how we’re adapting and shifting based on everything going on in the world.

My role really has three parts to it. There’s the internal piece, which is about really looking at employee culture, and what is the language that we’re using? What are our values? And how do we create connection and trust internally?

The second piece is about the Oiselle Volée. The Volée is a 3500-member, women-only global organization. It’s folks from all walks of life who love the brand and love the sport. And so part of my role is really about how can we grow the Volée, either in terms of depth of what we’re offering the membership or width (of participation). I believe that the Volée could have 100,000 members, right? It’s a space for women to connect and talk about clothes, but also talk about life issues and improving the sport.

The last piece is about growing Oiselle to everybody. Oiselle is a small but fierce and growing women’s brand. Being there, I realized just how unique that is. Everybody at the organization identifies as a woman. There are not many companies that can say the same. And so what are the ways that we can get this message across? Our values are make great products, improve the sport, and really do good. So how can we share this message with more folks? Roughly speaking, that’s what I’m here to do.

DS:  When you’re talking about the Volée, how do you become part of this group?

AD: The Volée has changed over the past several years. I believe it’s now a little over 10 years old. Initially, it was a brand ambassador group and people applied to represent the brand. But what we’ve realized over the years is that people were making really strong connections. And it was more than just this outward facing ambassadorship. It was more like a life changing community. The Volée is open to all. Now we have two seasons of openings, the next one will open up in January or February. We’re hoping to move to a model where you can join whenever. It’s $120 for the year, but there are many sponsorship spots available. So if a community of women movers and shakers and activists sounds like something you want to be part of, don’t worry about the cost. If that’s a problem, just please apply. There are sponsored scholarships, so you can join.

DS: You’ve been very personally out in front leading the charge for running to be a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable space. What do you think the running industry needs to continue to do or needs to do that they haven’t done to make that happen?

AD: It’s been really exciting. It’s been really exhausting. It’s been really frustrating. It’s been all those things. I feel very privileged, though, to be in this position of connector and community builder within the industry. Before this, talking to a CEO was not really something I did. And now, It’s “hey Jim, hey Sally.” So I recognize my privilege to be in those spaces. I also really honor and respect the folks that are in those (leadership) positions that recognize that it’s important, that they have to be on these calls and involved in this work.

The Running Industry Diversity Coalition (RIDC), we’re right now undergoing a strategic planning process, something I’ve never done, but it’s really helping us hone in on what we’re here to do, which is really talk about racial equity from an intersectional lens. We are looking at the ways that historically, Black, Indigenous, people of color have been made invisible in this industry, both in the community and in positions of power.

We’re doing this strategic planning to really think about what our goals are for next year, what are our goals for five years, 10 years? Thankfully, we’ve gotten some massive financial contributions. We are now a 501c3. And this money from – well, I can’t reveal it just yet. But brands are realizing that this is important. It’s important to have an organization that is focused on racial equity, that’s focused on education and training, that’s focused on providing talent, pipeline and job opportunities and creating new race directors who are people of color. Within a few months, we hope to have an executive director, and we’ve got some money to do the work that we do. I won’t be (RIDC) co-chair forever, I’m realizing I will need to step away, because it’s a lot of work. But I feel really good that we are setting up this permanent organization to be a respected and meaningful part of the industry.

DS:  I think most of us in the running industry realize that we have work to do. What do you say to event organizers out there as to what their first steps should be? Do you have something that you can share with them to say, here’s how you get started?

AD: Absolutely. But first I want to say that we as people who move and run and walk – we have a natural proclivity for doing tough things, right? We are people who decide that we’re going to do something that’s almost impossible. We’re going to run for a long, long time, we’re going to do something really hard. And that’s not always fun. But we’re going to get through it. I think that as endurance athletes, as people in this space, we are set up to do this well.

In terms of how to get started, I think there’s personal work that needs to be done to be applied in this professional systemic space. For a lot of people who hold privilege. Me, I’m a Black woman, those are my marginalized identities, but I hold privilege in that I’m able bodied, I’m middle class, I’m well educated. It’s hard for me to see when my able bodied privilege is showing. I don’t spend my day thinking about all of the obstacles the world would present me if I were in a wheelchair, because that’s not my experience. From a personal space, white people and people with privilege have to start thinking about ‘what are the ways that I am privileged in this space? What are the ways in which I go into meetings and don’t think about the fact that it’s all white men, in particular, in this industry.’ Dawna, I know you know that, being the woman behind Women’s Running magazine. The fact that you had to create an additional space (for women in the sport.)

I think the first thing is just building awareness about your privilege, because that will allow you to see things more clearly. And then, this work is about making sure that more people have access to the sport and access to opportunities and power. I was really excited to see that the Hardrock 100 has started to look at the percentage of participants, and next year they want to commit to having more women at the starting line. And my question is, what was the racial diversity of that group? How many people were Black? How many people identified as indigenous? Right? So start asking yourself those questions. And know that you will make a mistake, you will offend somebody, you will get something wrong, but you will have the opportunity for redemption.

We say it’s an ultramarathon with no medals. It’s long work, and we cannot see the fruits of our labor. But I get it, it’s scary to have conversations about stuff where you don’t know the language. And you don’t want to offend people. But guess what, you will. People who identify as men offend me all the time because of patriarchy. But we move through that. So I would say that it’s both a personal journey, but it’s also about redistributing power and access.

DS: Everything you said resonated. I hear people say that they’re honestly scared to not do the right thing, they’re worried they’re going do the wrong thing. And so you’re saying no, just move forward. And you probably will offend somebody. But as long as you are moving forward, and you are trying, and then hopefully, more and more resources will be out there for everybody to take the first step.

AD:  There are already some really useful tools. I want to draw everyone’s attention to Jordan Marie Daniel who put together this toolkit that really moves beyond just land acknowledgments. Wherever we are, we’re on indigenous land. So wherever your race is taking place, what are the ways you have a relationship with indigenous communities? Even broader than that, do you have a relationship with the communities that you run through in general? That might not be something you’re even thinking about. Where are your vendors coming from? Wouldn’t it be cool if you have local vendors involved? If your (race is) going through neighborhoods that are under-resourced, what are the ways that your race going through that neighborhood can contribute to the growth of that community? Because you want to have a longstanding relationship with where you’re doing your event.

DS: So it’s been over a year, but Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia opened a lot of people’s eyes about the dangers of running while Black. It’s such a hard question to ask, but do you think there’s any positive change or increased visibility that has come from that, or will come from it?

AD: I think it is a difficult question. And I think, for me it’s something that, when you’re Black, this is something this is a reality that you know from a young age. And there are conversations around that I think about that I’m going to have with my son soon. He’s only two years old, but around, you know, police and, and to be honest, not trusting police and being cautious and making sure that he knows his rights. This was not eye-opening or shocking in any way. It was heartbreaking. And it was really personal for me because of my son. I didn’t have a son before.

Something that has been really meaningful is that the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the injustice, allowed white people and many people who never considered what it’s like to be in a different body, outside, that there are differences. And it allowed people to start to think about well, within my running group, there’s mostly white folks. And we don’t think about these issues. And we don’t think about how running through a suburb at a certain time of day has different implications for people. I like to think that women should have this understanding because we know that running in a sports bra could put us at risk for being killed.

And then, just the year of us being inside and so all these racial and justices landing even harder. It’s not that more black and brown people were killed in the past year. It’s that we were at home, and we were watching the news and it was landing in this different way for folks. I do think that lit the fire. And now, how do we make sure that that fire still burns? You know, when it’s a women’s issue, it can’t just be women fighting for change. We need all genders to be on board with us. It can’t just be Black people doing this work, it has to be our white allies alongside us.

DS: I also wanted to ask about your running in general. You have a compelling personal story about why you started running, can you share that?

AD: Growing up, I had been a 400 and 4×400 meter runner. And it’s so funny because I had these pipe dreams of being an Olympian. And now that I have actual friends who are Olympians, I’m like, I had no freaking idea. There is no chance in hell that could have achieved that, because you have to want it in a way that I just did not want it.

Anyway, so I was a 400, 4×400 meter runner. And then I went to school and life happened. I found myself in 2011/2012, very depressed. I could not find a job, I was in a really bad relationship. My father was very sick with Lewy body dementia. I was at home all the time. It felt like I was watching other people lead their lives. But thankfully, one of those people I saw was a Black guy who was training for a marathon. And this to me, really brings the point home about the importance of representation. Because I saw a Black person running and I was like, ‘this guy doesn’t look like a runner.’ He was super average looking. I thought marathoners were skinny white guys. So he drew my attention. And I saw him do something that I thought that people like me didn’t do.

So I decided I’m going to give this a try. And like so many people can attest to, just the transformation in terms of seeing what was possible for me. Breaking up something really hard into little parts was a perspective that I began to apply outside of my life. So I ran my first marathon. Shout out to the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. And I raised over $5,000, and I decided, I want to build this community for people like me. At that time, and it’s changing now, but the conversation around mental health was even more taboo. I wanted to put this front and center about the connection between mental and physical health. And then, of course, me being me, I went back to school and got my master’s in counseling psychology. I always feel like I need to be the expert in things. And that’s where I started off in building community that was centered in mental health and really in racial justice, making sure that folks like me were out there running.

DS:  I know we talked about this a while back, but you started the Harlem Run running movement. So how did you go from your first marathon to building out a community?

AD: It was very, very slow. And not glamorous at first. I had been blogging about how amazing the (marathon) experience was. And I felt like, why am I just talking about this? Let me actually create this. So I started in November of 2013. For four months, nobody was showing up. It was just me every Monday. I would post photos of random people’s feet so that it looked like there were people. It was a lot of sad calls to my mom at seven o’clock, crying, ‘nobody’s showing up!’

But I just I kept showing up. People really can become fanatical about running when you’ve had that first positive experience, and I felt like I needed to share it. And so that just kept me going. I was like, I know that people are going to love this when they show up. So I’m just going to keep showing up. And sure enough, within six months, there was one person and then five people and then a year and a half later, there’s 150 people.

Now, I live on the West Coast, in Seattle. But Harlem Run is still running and we still have a leadership team. That’s a beautiful thing. They’ve embraced it as their own community, their own movement. I take pride in that it’s never been about me. It’s been about other people having that experience.

DS: And it’s probably nice also to see that something that you were so passionate about, lives on, right? Because it’s not just about you, but you created this movement that just moves on its own.

AD: That’s the dream. Working yourself out of a job and having the community remain. For me, that’s a big success.

DS: What advice would you give to people that just want to start out and run? I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times as you built up that community.

AD: Consistency. It’s so similar to when you’re on your running journey, starting again or just starting. Or whether you’re building community. It’s going to suck sometimes, but you have to be consistent. I’ve heard people say those three throwaway miles, right? But it’s building your mitochondria, right? It’s an important piece of the puzzle. That’s how I started to think about when you show up, and there’s not a lot of people and there’s the blow to your ego. But you’ve got to be consistent and you have to remember why you’re doing it. Because if you’re doing it for fame, then I would say take a different angle. There’s better, easier ways to get fame. But if you’re doing it because you really want community and you really believe in it, that will be the thing that allows you to keep showing up when nobody does.

DS: So fast forward to 10-plus years later and you’re a mom, super busy, does running help you?

AD: Running has taken on a very different significance. I guess I was really naive. Or maybe there’s just not enough information out there showing different types of pregnancies and postpartum experiences. Because I thought, ‘oh, I was super active, within three months, I’ll be back to my old self, and I’ll be fine’. And then, of course, I had an emergency C-section and all these other things. No matter whether your body physically looks the same, it’s a different body. So I’m just in a different body, a larger body, hips that are so freakin’ tight. I can’t even believe it.

Running for me brings me so much joy and clarity. But I’m also like, oh, this is how this body moves. So it’s a re-discovery. And my plan is – Ted Metellus, look out! I’ll be running the New York City Marathon in November. Hopefully you can catch me at the end. So it used to be hard, but far easier than now with a two year old. And my husband (Amir Figueroa) is training for Run the Rut 50K in Montana.

DS: Is there anything else you want to share that you feel is important for our readers to know?

AD: I would love to share that I’m working on a book that’s set to come out in October 2022. It tells my personal narrative, but it also tells the running boom story from a different lens and centering the experience of Black and Brown folks in running. I’m working on it now and it’s set for release October 2022. I hope that it’s something that everybody buys, and it gets on the New York Times bestseller list. Really, I hope that it’s something that similar to the last year, where lots of folks have had their eyes opened. I hope that this book offers that experience, but also offers some tools around what we can do to make this space more inclusive. So look out for that coming soon. And I hope to see you at the Industry Conference in February,

DS: Do you have a working title that you can share?

AD: The title is ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Running,’ which is a play on the book, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ And so the concepts of light and weight are part of the book in terms of, what is the weight that you carry, the mental weight of some of this stuff.

DS: Wonderful. I will look forward to talking to you again when that happens. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’re busy, but it’s always great to catch up with you.