GumboFit are expanding the narrative on Chicago's South Side
“There’s a quote by Chimamanda Adichie that says something like ‘the problem with stereotypes is not always that they are untrue. It’s that they are often incomplete. She calls it the danger of a single story.’
And I think that's really important to remember on the South Side of Chicago, West Side of Chicago, just in any community where we're talking about underserved, underrepresented communities. Because to deny some of the violence that emerges from these communities would be false. But to single that out as the only thing that is relevant here is even more false.”
– Matthew Manning
Manning is the co-founder of GumboFit, a fitness community based on Chicago’s South Side, started with the aim of providing a space for Black representation in running. To hear Manning speak is to listen to a man deeply passionate about, and in tune with his community. Considered and aware, he sees an opportunity to change perceptions and break down barriers.
“At local levels of fitness there are a lot of gaps in representation and that's really what anchors GumboFit. By being present, by showing up, by doing the work, we're showing folks that might assume that we're not present, that we're there and we're showing folks that wish to be seen in the same way that there's a community here that you can be a part of.”
Manning and his Co-Founder, Courtney Phillips, launched GumboFit together; an extension of their media company and brand consultancy, Gumbo Media - an agency dedicated to expanding the narrative of their culture through better representation. Phillips is GumboFit’s primary architect, and largely leads its programming.
Phillips explains that when it comes to positive, healthy lifestyles in the community, seeing is believing.
“If people aren't being told that they can run, then they're not gonna be running around their neighborhood. They're not going to be showing up at the races. They're not gonna really, you know, be the ones supporting other runners. So it's like, how can we just start at the ground level and work our way up?”
GumboFit host runs twice a week in Promontory Point, and this year have teamed up with Nike to get some of their athletes ready for the Chicago Marathon. Courtney explains that part of that program has included giving runners access to smaller, local races at shorter distances.
“We're able to give people the opportunity to be in a race maybe for the first time, or to do a race that they haven't done before."
"It's allowing people to start small too, and build their way up to whatever it is that they want to do. So, even yesterday we had a runner say that she's not really a runner, but she has a goal of doing a 10K at one point. So it's like, ‘Great, we can help you get there’.”
And while GumboFit aren’t the first people of color to run in Chicago, there is something meaningful about leading organised sessions, and showing Chicago’s runners and the wider city in general that their community is here, has a place, and wants to work intimately with other groups to build a stronger and more supportive city.
It’s easy to think of these acts - running around a lake with friends, as regular, everyday occurrences, but the point is - they’re not. Not for a large portion of the population, for people who don’t see themselves represented, particularly at local levels, in sports like running.
The inspiration and the freedom to try something can come from anywhere - be that the local run crew on your block or at a higher level, such as professional sport, according to Matthew.
“I'm just constantly and consistently inspired by our community, and fitness is no exception. I mean look at any sport really, and evaluate some of the best. Serena Williams is one of the best athletes maybe ever, if not the best.
"It's inspiring to think of folks like that and the inspiration that they've given to people. In the park that we live by, across the street there are young black boys and girls playing tennis every single day, you know?”
Manning’s own running journey started as a child - in elementary school he remembers trying track at school sports days and finding he was naturally good at it. I’m sure no one at the track on those days gave any thought to what might be born from those first few steps. It’s cliche to watch kids playing sport and wonder if the next Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, or Eliud Kipchoge is among them. But we rarely consider that these children could grow into the voices their community needs - the people leading the way at ground level.
It’s remarkable to listen to Manning speak about what running can do for people in his community. He speaks of his father, a 70-something living in Harlem, who never had the opportunity to learn basic reading and writing skills, and still to this day struggles to feel empowered or to communicate his emotions effectively.
Manning explains the role GumboFit can play, “part of what we're constantly thinking through...is how can we create communities and experiences that allow us to release some of that baggage and just be? Just be present, just be a collective, just be family. And that's needed for our community, because it's literally a life source."
"It's sometimes what we need to keep swimming without drowning.”
There’s a not-uncommon journey that new runners can go on when they join a crew. Often at the start, the pull of the group is of course, the running. And then as people get into their comfort zone and bring their guard down, the draw becomes the community. The most meaningful run crew relationships occur when it’s no longer solely about the running.
Courtney explains that GumboFit plays a crucial role for some runners as a support network.
“When people start running, whether it's their first time or they're running with a group, it's about that sense of community where you have that support system. And so if they're not getting this support outside in their daily lives, this is their opportunity to come together and really to have that opportunity to feel that motivation and that care, which reinforces that they matter.”
“Sometimes in life it feels like there's these barriers that you just can't get over or through, but then with running, I've said many times, it's like a big metaphor for life. It's like, take one step at a time. Pace yourself. Life is a marathon, you know?”
The South and West Sides of Chicago are more rich and complex than we give them credit for. And run clubs like GumboFit and others like it provide people with the opportunity to live and express themselves more freely, beyond the monoliths that falsely represent their communities. We can never experience life in someone else’s skin, so next time you see GumboFit or any underrepresented group of people out running, know that this is more than just a run. It’s also a release valve to many, and a community anchor. This run has the power to change lives.