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3 Black founders on building fitness groups that feel inclusive for all

Fitness groups are not always welcoming to outsiders, and these trailblazers want to change that.
Finding Community through Fitness
Groups like Black Girls Do Bike, Boombox Boxing Club and Woke Chicago are attracting a diverse crowd to the fitness world.TODAY illustration/ / TODAY illustration/Chancelor Humphrey/Stephan George/Woke Chicago
/ Source: TMRW

Fitness groups not only encourage physical activity but also foster connections, create friendships and build communities. But they're not always welcoming to outsiders and the industry is predominantly white, young and affluent. Black trailblazers — like the founders of Black Girls Do Bike, Woke Chicago and Boombox Boxing Club — are out to change the landscape and attract new faces to the fitness space.

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1. Black Girls Do Bike

Black Girls Do Bike founder Monica Garrison grew up cycling as a recreational activity, but in 2013, she returned to her bike for a different reason.

"I decided to start cycling again as a real effort to help with weight and stress management and I gained both of those benefits from cycling that summer, but I also found that it was a great way for me to spend more time with my kids who were pretty young at the time," Garrison told TMRW. "And so, cycling just became a lifesaver for me in that moment, and I thought that sharing that with other women would be great."

Black Girls Do Bike founder Monica Garrison lives in Pittsburgh. Here, she poses with her bike in the city's Penn Avenue bike lane.Chancelor Humphrey

That's why the photographer and videographer, 41, started a Facebook page for women who love to bike. "A lot of my friends, also women of color, who were, you know, just dealing with the stresses of careers and life, didn't really have an outlet. So I thought starting Black Girls Do Bike might be a way to spread the word and get them motivated and also to connect with other women."

Black Girls Do Bike now has over 25,000 members across 100 chapters and counting, with the largest chapters in New York City, Atlanta and Chicago. "We don't charge dues to become a member so really membership is around showing up at rides and connecting to us via Facebook. Each of our cities that have a chapter are attached to a Facebook group page individually so we consider anyone who is in those group pages and engaging, and those ladies who physically show up for rides to be members."

Members of the Black Girls Do Bike chapter in Detroit on a ride in 2015Jamila Maxey

During the coronavirus pandemic, group rides have gone virtual and Garrison recently released "Bike Girl Magic," an e-book printed in English and Spanish for beginner bicyclists. In addition to group rides, Black Girls Do Bike helps mentor women who want to shift into competitive cycling or coaching through a partnership with USA Cycling.

Members of the Pittsburgh chapter of Black Girls Do Bike ride along the Three Rivers Heritage trailSamone Riddle

2. Woke Chicago

For Sarah Ford, building a nonprofit and a community aligned with her response to the pandemic and need to fight for racial justice. She founded Woke Chicago last year to address "a disparity in wellness" that stood out in sharp focus when she was searching for instructional yoga videos online during lockdown. "It was the beginning of the quarantine and I started doing yoga and things really started changing in my life. ... It all kind of came together with looking inward, and also seeing that there are not a lot of people of color that do yoga, especially on YouTube."

She recalled thinking, "I am more privileged than most and so how do I kind of be that anchor point, or even just a bridge to communities? A lot of my life has been that so it just felt like (Woke Chicago) was really ready to be born."

Before the pandemic, Woke Chicago hosted in-person youth yoga classes at a school, in the park and at a boxing club called The Bloc. As the pandemic continues, more classes have moved to a virtual format.Woke Chicago

Ford, 32, turned to social media and created a new Instagram account. She recruited yoga teachers to spread the word about her new idea. Woke Chicago now runs a youth yoga program that has taught up to 150 kids and teens since launching in May 2020. The nonprofit introduces "community-inspired" yoga to children, adapts classes to make them kid-friendly and provides trauma-informed yoga teacher training.

Woke Chicago founder Sarah Ford was inspired to start the nonprofit's youth yoga program after seeing very few women of color represented in other yoga classes.Woke Chicago

"The work that we're doing is so impactful. And I feel like people want the opportunity to do something, but we just have to give it to them," Ford told TMRW. "There's so much that can be healed and solved through our community getting together and doing something. Movement and mindfulness is wonderful, but it doesn’t need to be yoga — just get together and do something. We started getting together. The momentum has just been wild."

Ford hopes to expand Woke Chicago to other cities in the future (including her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama) and help teens through an upcoming high school internship program and other initiatives.

3. Boombox Boxing Club

Boombox Boxing Club has hosted boxing classes outdoors during the pandemic, like this one at the Rooftop at Union Market in Washington, D.C.Boombox Boxing Club

Reggie Smith first met Angela Jennings on a dating app eight years ago, and while they didn't become romantic partners, they did become good friends. So when Smith came up with the idea for a boxing club about five years ago, he instantly took his idea to Jennings. The business partners brainstormed what they wanted their boxing gym to look like and opened the first location of Boombox Boxing Club, a music-driven workout space, in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

Jennings, 38, says it was important for them to make their gym a welcoming place to every type of member. "We have different body types. We are from all kinds of different backgrounds and races. And I mean, not just because Reggie and I are Black, but we were like, we're connecting with these people," she told TMRW.

Reggie Smith and Angela Jennings first met on a dating app eight years ago. They found out they had a lot in common, including a love for working out. Their shared interests eventually led them to creating what is now Boombox Boxing Club.Stephan George

"We want people to come into Boombox and see themselves because ... group fitness just generally is a white space ... and it's a very women-driven space and that's just the nature of this industry," Jennings added. "There is something in (Boombox) for everybody from how you look, how you want to feel, what kind of rhythm you want to have, like from all of those elements, we wanted to be a completely inclusive space."

Even though boxing can look intimidating, Smith said, "when you put music to it, it's wild how beginners are able to get some of the movements and get the punches and put the combinations together."Stephan George

Smith, 42, is also one of the boxing coaches and juggles teaching along with his full-time job in finance. "I tell folks after class, especially my morning class, I say, 'Look, you know, it's a unique person that wakes up at 6 a.m. and comes to work out. Get to know these people because these are high achievers, and you never know who you're in class with.' I've always been kind of impressed with just the diversity of the folks and the caliber of the people that come through there and the connections that are made in the gym."