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How Mariah Dyson Went From Running Marathons to Running Nonprofit GirlGangCrazy

09 Oct 2020

When our worlds shut down at the onset of quarantine, it felt like people everywhere turned to social media and the outdoors to escape the feeling of being stuck. Ridden with anxiety about the state of the world, I did too. Both mediums reminded me that the world was bigger than my bedroom—a life online connected me to multiple realities and running connected me with myself. And the same rings true for a group of girls and women in Los Angeles and beyond, long before the lockdown began.

For months, athlete and creative Mariah Dyson trained a group of friends (and friends of friends) to race the Nike LA 13.1 Half Marathon in April, and documented their training journey on Instagram under the moniker GirlGangCrazy. But when social distance guidelines were mandated and the half marathon went virtual, social media connected the group from their respective homes.

“Even though we didn’t all run the race together, we ran alone together, and that was tight,” Dyson says over Zoom. “That’s where it started—it was just really realizing the power of running. I’ve always known the power of running, but it was like dang, I guess we can keep running alone and it’ll still feel like we’re together with the apps, messaging, and Instagram.” 

When the Nike Women Marathon Project tapped Mariah Dyson to join in 2018, she spent 15 weeks training alongside a team of 39 other women to run the Chicago Marathon. An athlete for most of her life, Dyson calls conquering the 26.2 mile race one of her biggest dreams. It was an experience that reiterated to her the power of community—through social media, too. 

“I always say community is everything. You really can’t do anything [without community],” Dyson says. “When I ran the marathon the first time, I had so many people I didn’t know cheering me on because of Instagram, and that helped me finish.”

Alongside founding members Felicia La Tour, Yasmin Antonio, and Carlee Qualls, Dyson recently established GirlGangCrazy as a nonprofit organization with a focus on empowerment and advocacy. They still offer consistent training regimens while cultivating community (instead of competition), but GirlGangCrazy’s work extends beyond being a run club. Created with the belief that girls and women everywhere deserve the same support, rights, resources, access, and protections, GirlGangCrazy empowers girls and women through sisterhood. The eldest of four siblings, Dyson credits her advocacy to being a big sister. 

“Because I’m a big sister, I’m in everyone’s business all the time,” she says. “That’s why I feel like I’m an advocate. I’ve always wanted to change the world in some kind of way.” To The People caught up with Dyson to talk support, sisterhood, dreaming, and what’s up next for GirlGangCrazy.

Manna Zel: GirlGangCrazy empowers women through sisterhood in a really inspiring and necessary way. Something that’s glaringly obvious in the running world—to me, at least—is that there aren’t many women who look like us, or I have to go to Instagram to find them. Joining GirlGangCrazy earlier this summer and seeing women (who looked like me!) chasing their miles really healed my relationship with running. What was your inspiration behind establishing this community for and with women of color? 

Mariah Dyson: I’ve been running pretty much my whole life—track and short distances. In 2018, I had the opportunity to train for a marathon like an elite athlete, which was one of my biggest dreams. I had 40 women on my team. We trained together, I finished the marathon, kept running marathons, training, and signing up for crazy races. The thing was, I was the only Black girl there. The transition for me—running short distances to long distances—was a process. It’s hard to run this long. When it comes to the mental process I went through, I was like, “Damn, I’m not going to get a bunch of Black girls to come run with me right now. It’s not realistic to make that happen.” I felt like, at that time, I was responsible for making that happen. I had to get down to the basics of what made me like this—learning the mechanics, learning about my body, learning about my mental strength. I was like, “Okay, let me figure out how I can make that tangible for other people,” which is so hard, because everybody’s process is different. At the time, I was the only one and it’s boring. It’s not that fun to be the only Black girl. I do a really good job at code-switching, but it’s not fun to just always be turned on in that way because I’m the only Black girl there. 

MZ: Can you tell me more about the origins of GirlGangCrazy, and how you’ve seen the community transform and take shape, especially throughout the double pandemic?

MD: GirlGangCrazy wasn’t even supposed to be a run club. We coined the phrase—a few of my friends and I—at a photoshoot, being cute. Then I was like, “Oh this is kind of powerful, though.” At the end of 2019, we started training for the half marathon in April. I was coaching a few of my friends and a bunch of other friends wanted to run. I was like, “Okay, I’ll make a training program, coach you guys, and we’re going to partner with Nike in a very small way and just make sure that we all cross the finish line in April.” Unfortunately we had to pivot because of the quarantine, but at least 75% of the group I was training ran that day. Even though we didn’t run the race all together, we ran alone together and that was tight. So that’s where it started—it was just really realizing the power of running. I’ve always known the power of running, but it was like dang, I guess we can keep running alone and it’ll still feel like we’re together with the apps, messaging, and Instagram. It helps keep everyone’s hopes up.

MZ: I think in previous running groups I’ve been a part of, it’s typically been mostly white people, and it wasn’t super welcoming, either. There was also a lot of competition around hitting your miles, but what I love about GirlGangCrazy is that it’s really just about encouragement. You get on the Instagram story and see that so-and-so has hit those miles. And even though you don’t know that person, you’re like, “Oh my God, I could do that, too.” Why was it important to you to build a culture of accountability and community, rather than competition?

MD: When I ran my first marathon, I [wondered] how I could cultivate this for Black women. That was one of the main things—making sure no one feels pressure from other people within run groups. I wanted GirlGangCrazy to be kind of like the stepping stone into run clubs, because there are so many run clubs in LA and it’s kind of gotten cliquey. I wanted to avoid that, but still be like, “Okay, you can come to Mariah, learn the basics, learn everything you want to learn, and we can run together. But then [you can] feel comfortable going to other run clubs.” 

I always say community is everything. You really can’t do anything [without community]. When I ran the marathon the first time, I had so many people I didn’t know cheering me on because of Instagram, and that helped me finish. I didn’t hit the goal I wanted to hit, but who can say they ran a marathon? It was like, “Damn, okay, I did it. I don’t have to feel pressure and competitiveness, because it’s a marathon.” 

MZ: How has your coaching shifted now that GGC can no longer run in person together?

MD: We’re planning to actually host a hon in February—very, very, very lowkey right now. It’ll be a virtual run as well, where I would most likely give people a training program so we can all succeed, feel good, and trust the process. I’m not forcing anyone to do the monthly challenges, but when it comes to training for something, I think I would be more of a stickler about trusting the training and trusting what I give you as far as weekly runs, because we want to get to the end healthy and confident. 

MZ: It’s so exciting to see that GirlGangCrazy has now become an official nonprofit organization with a focus on empowerment and advocacy. What is your vision for GirlGangCrazy moving forward?

MD: The main goals I always go back to are always something that has to happen in person, as far as my brain can accept right now. I want GirlGangCrazy to be something where we’re advocating for and empowering younger girls in schools and [providing] educational workshops for girls. Right now, one of our main focuses is polling initiatives—making sure people get out to the polls and making sure people sign up as poll workers. Our priorities have changed, for sure, and they’re shifting as the world opens back up. It’s based on seeing what we can do. I don’t even feel like, in good conscience, I can plan anything because the world is fucking burning! It’s the reality I’m facing every morning.

MZ: Encouraging people to be actively involved in that capacity is really inspiring, and really necessary right now—especially since many poll workers are older and are at higher risk in this pandemic. Tell me more about the importance of signing up to be a poll worker. 

MD: That feels like I’m personally more involved in the process, in understanding the process. That’s just another way for me to learn, because I don’t even know what the voting process is. I know I go in there, do my ballot, and I leave, but I feel like understanding the ins and outs of it can make me be more of an advocate for voter suppression and voter restrictions. I feel like it would be helpful for other people to learn that way [too]. It’s not just sitting there reading a pamphlet; I would have to go and be a part of it. On top of that, in this election in California, there are a lot of propositions on the ballot. I feel like Black people are not responsible for what happens in this country, but I do feel like becoming more aware of the process will be helpful and will be empowering. I always say that [for] my sister, who is 17, and her friends that are the generation behind me, I would love for them to be more educated than I was and I am right now. That’s the main reason. It’s all a process, and this is a part of it. It feels like politics happen to us, and policies happen to us. People just pass things and we have to cope with them. I feel like being a part of the polling process—and understanding how propositions get put in place—would make it feel like it’s happening with us, and we’re part of the change and part of the process.

MZ: GirlGangCrazy recently led a 5K walk/run/bike from Leimert Park in celebration of and honor of our right to vote and used that space for education, fellowship, and voter registration. Can you tell me more about the heart behind the Run The Ballot 5K and registering people to vote?

MD: That was pure alignment. In May, mid-pandemic, I wrote down that I wanted to do something around one girl, one vote. Then the next week, I got a call about this run, along the lines of making sure people were registered and educated about the ballot this year. I think everything for me always goes back to education because I love learning and I feel like I’m more empowered when I know what the fuck is going on. I wanted to make sure there was a space for women who have to handle everything in life and who have to be the leaders in most rooms to learn about the ballot and how it affects them, [while] also highlighting the importance of the work that Black women did almost a century ago, if not later, to make sure we have a vote as women and as Black people, and rights as voters. It was a culmination of so many thoughts that I didn’t even even say out loud, and we made it happen, and it was a great day. It was a very simple day—get a COVID screening done, come run the 5K, learn about the ballot, and mingle. I was very worried about responsibility during the pandemic but it was okay, and everyone was healthy.

MZ: I feel like the term “manifest” has maybe become overused, but do you often use writing as a form of manifesting your dreams?

MD: Yeah! For a while. I’ve only most recently felt like I’m seeing the magic of it happen more rapidly, but I’ve always done that in planners and journals. I still do it, but there’s been so much other work at the same time that I feel like writing it down isn’t enough.

MZ: I caught the recent conversation you and your sister, Leila, had with sisters Taylor Pollard and Kheris Rogers on Nike LA’s IGTV and I love to see content of you and Leila, because I think that relationship is so special. I’m the youngest of three, and my older sister was always a huge inspiration to me when I was growing up. Have you and your younger siblings always shared the same love for running and community?

MD: I only recently understood the power of community through running, so I’ve been imposing it on them—telling them you have to find solid friends and people who are going to encourage you and keep you accountable. Leila and my brother, Elijah, have been people who actually look up to me. It’s never been daunting or felt like a big deal, but I’ve taken the responsibility very seriously. I make sure that I don’t adjust who I am in order to be a role model. I think through my actions, they’re learning a lot and it feels like a cool relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship. They teach me a lot and I teach them a lot. 

When it comes to my other sister—her name is Saida—she and I are more of the friend level. We have differences but with my friends who feel like sisters, our relationship would probably never reach [that] point of disagreement or the way we are with each other. I grew up knowing that I was going to argue with my sister all the time—who’s annoying, who steals my clothes, who’s not considerate because she knows that I’m always going to be there. With my new sisters that are my friends, it’s a whole different relationship that redefined sisterhood for me. The parts about unconditional love and accountability and always showing up for each other is what embodies sisterhood to me now. Before, my sister used to get on my nerves, but we’re grown now so it’s different. Sisterhood is different. 

MZ: There’s such a big difference between the way a relationship with your sister functions versus with your sister-friends—that’s something I’ve noticed with my own sister. My sister always had her own sister-friends and the people she’s been friends with for like 14 years, whereas I’ve always just been the little sister she had to make time for or bring along with her own friends. There was even a point that I’d get offended that she called other people her sisters. I wonder if you’ve ever run into something like that from your younger sisters. How do you balance having real-life sisters with sister-friends? 

MD: I think I treat everyone the same now. My solid group of sister-friends now weren’t always my solid group of sister-friends. Before, it was like, “I’m going to go with my friends and you guys stay home and leave me alone.” Now, I want everyone to be the same. I want them to have the same qualities when it comes to me being close with them. It’s been kind of easy now. I don’t even have to question it. I can invite everyone everywhere and I have the same conversations with all of them—even Leila, who’s 17, and I’m 28. Totally different lifestyle, totally different mentality about life, but she comes and she listens and she sits and we’ll do activities and things. She loves my friends and they love her. They think she’s the younger version of me, and I’m like yeah, she’s the fully-realized version. Her voice and her conviction about things are so developed, whereas mine was like, “I’m mad at the world.” She has clear visions about what she should do about her angst and things like that.

MZ: I think sisters who spend time with their older sisters’ friends are lightyears ahead of everyone else their own age.

MD: Right! I think so. That’s like the cheat code. I wish I had a big sister.

MZ: You’ve talked before about the unique value of having a support system. How has support—whether from family, friends, or people online—shaped your work and your dreams?

MD: One thing I had to learn and make the distinction for myself was the difference between support and praise. Having people who were like, “I’m proud of you!” or “You got it, girl!” was cool, but I was never able to turn to some of those people for insight or actual support. I did the marathon in 2018. 2019 came and it was a really shitty year. I felt like people were weird, I didn’t know who to talk to about things, money was funny, and people that I thought were going to hold me down didn’t. I learned at that point that having a support system that was feeding into me and pouring into me when it came to knowledge and showing up—even if it was pouring me a drink because I’m coming over and I need to talk—was something I didn’t know I needed. I thought hearing “I’m proud of you!” was enough.

One of my main goals now is to put myself in a position where I can support someone else. At this point, I want to utilize my resources in the best way possible, in the most accurate way possible, so that I’ll put myself in a position to be able to support everyone around me and who wants to come up with me. People have such solid friend groups, where they can go be themselves—maybe you have three friendships and you’re yourself in each one—and that’s something I didn’t used to have before. I was the only Black girl or the only girl. Now that I have solid groups where I feel seen in all of them, I thrive in a way I never could imagine on my own. It’s a whole new world having this support from running to girl things to sisterhood shit to health and wellness type things. Each space is open for me.

MZ: In one of your recent Instagram posts, you mentioned becoming everything you dreamed of when you were little, almost without noticing. Talk to me about the role dreaming has played in your life, and the power it holds for you—and why dreaming wildly and having the freedom to create are such important parts of GGC’s mission.

MD: My dream for a long time was to be a lawyer, but really to be an academic. I love school and the idea of going to college and having that whole college experience. I never had it, but what I thought would come from that is pretty much where I’m at, where I’m going, and what I can see. I’m not in this financial space that is pristine, but I feel fulfilled and I have a clear direction that doesn’t feel daunting that I can take on. It didn’t look how I thought it was going to look, but it feels good. Once I got the support and access and resources, my dreams became way bigger. Before, it was very limited and narrow and based on what I’d seen other people do that looked like me. Once I got the community that believed in everything I was doing and needed me and I needed them… I’m not scared of [my dreams] anymore. They don’t feel crazy. They don’t feel outrageous. I’ve done things I never thought I would do or I never thought I would want to do. Now, I need to make sure that I have the time and the access to give people the same access so that they can also dream. And we can change the world a little quicker, maybe. 

To learn more about GirlGangCrazy, check out their website and follow them on Instagram.

Images courtesy of Zyaire Porter
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