T. Morgan Dixon—the cofounder and CEO of GirlTrek (which is the largest public health nonprofit for Black American women in the U.S.)- says that everything we need to know about moving towards being more liberated, more joyous, and more aligned with our greatness, we can find by studying the lives of our foremothers. This idea, of honoring the experiences of Black women past and present is what both inspired Dixon (and cofounder Vanessa Garrison) to start GirlTrek in 2010 and also what moved them, in 2013, to gather 15,000 folks to walk the path Harriet Tubman traveled to free others who were enslaved. The goal of both that trek that started on the National Mall, and the goal of GirlTrek overall, is to remind Black women everywhere that they are more powerful than they can imagine, that their entire lives can change by simply placing one foot in front of the other, and that every pathway they find towards becoming more free they have to share with their sisters.
MadameNoire had an opportunity to catch up with T. Morgan Dixon to talk about what it means to be a free Black woman, what it means to change the world, and also what it means to care for ourselves in the process.
MadameNoire: Let’s begin by talking about Freedom. We heart this phrase “free black woman,” so often, and we understand that every Black woman has her own idea of what it means to be free. What is your personal definition of freedom?
T. Morgan Dixon: Yeah, so on the GirlTrek Black History Bootcamp Podcast one of the things we do in study our foremothers as a blueprint for the future. And one of my favorite episodes of the podcast is about Nina Simone. We’ve all seen the clip where Nina Simone talks about what freedom means to her, you know. She says that freedom is no fear. And that’s it. That’s the quote. And it has taken me every year of my life to fully understand what foremother Nina Simone was talking about, and when I tell you that I (and I would venture to say most of the black women that I love) are carrying such crippling levels of fear every day in their lives, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being worthy beyond their work, fear of not being loved the right way, fear of not being accepted by their families fully, fear of not being saved enough, fear of being too saved. You know what I mean? Fear of not being as gorgeous on the outside, as you know you are on the inside, or fearing that you are too gorgeous on the outside and become rotten the inside, all of these kinds of fears we have.
So, every day, I just wrote about this actually on my Instagram page, every day is an exercise in loving more than you fear… Every day is an exercise in finding more space, than you have construction in your body… Every day is an exercise in finding flexibility while you are carrying the heaviest loads imaginable. It is a complete and utter surrender to all that is greater than you, and a fight to the finish line every single day, and so… Freedom to me is the ability to exert power when it is necessary and when it is needed, and freedom to me is the ability to rest when it is required.
MadameNoire: This message of freedom, and even choosing freedom, right now is so important right now. We see thismessaging in campaigns like the latest from Ford Bronco Sport that put an emphasis on Black women having the “power to go where [they] want,” and encouraging them to do so. We see this message as we watch journalist and professor Nikole Hannah Jones, in her decision to not accept tenure at University of North Carolina—and instead choosing to accept a position at Howard University. We see this message in tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to choose herself and her mental health above competing at the French Open. To circle back to foremother Nina Simone, who was also quoted as saying that we have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served, it is indeed so important to shine as bright as we can, but also surrender and rest, so we can keep going.
T. Morgan Dixon: We are so proud of our Nikole Hannah Jones and of Naomi Osaka, and everyone who has chosen to walk away.
MadameNoire: When we look at your life, and all that you’ve achieved, we’re sure that you’ve also had to walk away from some things. Moments where you’ve had to say, “Hey, I’ve done the work here that I set out to do. It’s time for me to go. And I’m sure that’s a difficult decision and process every time.
T. Morgan Dixon: I’ve learned that everything is negotiable. That’s what we need to understand. But, so often, we’re afraid. We measure our worth according to our achievement, and so if we are too disagreeable, we’re not able to meet the goals career-wise that we’ve set. And I know this because ambition was my drug for so long. I get the high of achievement, I do. And black woman, we are the highest achieving demographic, by far in most categories– we just are. For me personally, it’s been an exercise in saying no to my lesser self, which has to prove and posture and perform. I’ve learned to say no to her quite a bit.
MadameNoire: Worthiness! It’s so incredible to talk to you, someone who has built this expansive and successful movement, say that you struggle with ideas around worthiness. We tend to never believe that people who are successful struggle in this way. What advice do you have for black women who want to move past the barriers that are keeping them from moving towards their life’s work of life calling—to move past fear, to move past contemplations about worthiness?
T. Morgan Dixon: I’m inspired by a lot of Black women, and I’m also inspired by a lot of women around the world who are thinkers here, and there’s a woman who’s a nun and Buddhist teacher here in the US named Pema Chodron, who talks about not biting the hook. And she also introduced me to this concept of this sky philosophy that is actually rooted in Native American culture. This philosophy asks each of us to identify with the sky, and never identify with the clouds. For me, when I heard about this big sky philosophy, it was really liberating for me because, boy, them storms be rolling in. And if you can identify with what is ever-present, what is never changing, what is greater than you, or what is bigger than you. You know? It reminds me of every song that my mom sang in the Church of God in Christ when I was growing up—that you need to go to a rock that’s higher than you. There’s something there, something expensive and beautiful.
Every time you ever think you’re feeling some kind of way, literally throw your head back and look at the sky. If you can seea blue sky, be grateful. If you can’t, know that the blue sky is right behind the clouds. Know that you are never the clouds, they’re all passing. You are not your emotions, they’re passing by. You are not your circumstances, you’re passing by, you are so much bigger and expansive and interconnected… You know what I mean? You are more porous and solid than any of your passing thoughts, and that to me is just such good advice because the world can overwhelm and can drown, if you don’t know who you actually are and whose you actually are.Remembering this big sky philosophy is one thing that helps me every day.
Then, practically what helps me every day is sleeping. First of all, black women: let’s sleep! I set my sleep clock and I go to bed about 10 or 10:30, I wake up about 5 or 530. And there’s something sacred about the morning hours that I think we have forgotten as a people— with black out shades and working from home and all these sorts of things. Living in Africa has taught me to wake up with the sun and to create a more natural rhythm in my life. So, I wake up with birds and the sun, and I pray. I opened my windows, and I let some fresh air in. I sit on the ground to get grounded. I read my sister Kendria McKnight’s devotional book. My sister is a fisherwoman who was terrified of the open water, and she wrote this devotional journal called The Courage to Fish. And there’s an app that called The Five-Minute Journal, where you literally count your blessings in this app. The app is so beautifully and elegantly designed. I review my prayer list. Listen! I have an old school prayer list. I place that on my altar, I water my plants. I give myself permission to move at a human speed for about two hours every morning. Sometimes I listen to T.D. Jakes. Sometimes I listen to rachet music. [She laughs] And I take a walk every morning.
MadameNoire: Morning rituals really do a lot to outline what our days will be like. We love that you are practicing the walking philosophy of GirlTrek every day.
T. Morgan Dixon: Yes, and I walk with my friends who are fountains, and I get to just be present, be quiet with them, and listen to them. I remember attending this gathering for The Omega Institute, and Vanessa and I were rooming with this amazing woman who shared something so important with us. She said that there are fountains and there are drains. And to make sure that you fill your life with fountains. Because if everybody in your life is a drain, you’re going to constantly feel and be depleted. You need fountains.
MadameNoire: You are offering us so many lessons and so much to chew on! Yes, to bringing more fountains into our lives!What was your aha moment around the importance of self-care?
T. Morgan Dixon: I want to share what has helped me grow, and so much growth has come with learning to let go. I used to be very much a person who was … (in some ways, I still am this person, but I’ve made friends with her and she doesn’t have to run my life like that). But I used to be this very controlling and contrived person, where I just wanted to prove that I should be at the table—to prove that I should be in the room. This is who I was, so this notion of surrender… I understood it intellectually, but I didn’t understand it spiritually. In fact, I negatively reacted to it. Like, “l ain’t got no time for surrender; I need to keep moving forward. One time I was at this yoga retreat with this yoga teacher who is my good friend, Beryl Bender Birch. She wrote this book called Power Yoga. And I was struggling. Like my body was not designed for this practice—even though I love it. We were in Newport News, and during a break at the retreat, I was out at the pier, and this nasty storm was rolling in. And I started watching these birds and who they would move through this storm. They would flap their wings really hard, and then a gust of wind would hit them, and they would let go. The wind would toss them and turn them, and they would just move with the wind.
And I’m watching these birds get from point A to point B in this balance between strength and flexibility. And I remember thinking, if birds are smart enough to know when to surrender, I need to be smart enough to know when to dance, when to relax, when to unfurl… And then I can do the work that’s necessary when it’s time. That was definitely a moment when I took the theory of surrender and understood what it meant to put it into practice.
Madame Noire: We are seeing so much content in social media, reminding Black women to rest. Rest for us is radical. Let’s talk a bit about what is radical about self-care for Black women and why you feel that self-care is such a radical act that it moved you to create an entire movement rooted in self-care.
T. Morgan Dixon: When we think about the word health, we think clinical, and we think other people have institutional control over our health. It’s the mental picture that comes into our mind when you think health. When we think of self-care, we think agency, we think of what GirlTrek says all the time, never asked permission to save your own life. We also use another word— healing—which is other worldly. Healing means I am going to trust in the power of a universe that is greater than me, to pull all things together for my good, if I believe and walk in the direction of my healthiest and most fulfilled life. And so, we use all three of these terms in GirlTrek. We need to disrupt disease in the healthcare system and in public health, for sure, we’re designing infrastructure, strategy and collective action to do that. We have nearly 10% of the total population of African American women in America who are walking with GirlTrek. We are going to change systems and policy. Healing requires us to tap into the God of our foremothers, and to know that it is nothing but a miracle that we’re standing here. Self-care is up to us individually; it is up to us and putting radical in front of itsucks all of the bubbles out of the bubble bath. Our co-founder of Vanessa Garrison just taught me that radical means taking something up from its root. This is something she learned from Audre Lorde, who was the foremother of self-care.
At first, I had no idea what she was talking about, until I thought about this notion of pulling things out that no longer serve you, like tending to your garden. We should imagine that our lives aregardens, and we have to pull stuff out that is crowding out the goodness in your life, and so that’s why when we say that self-care is radical, is not just the pouring in of the bubble bath, it is also the pulling out of overtime at work, you know what I mean? Taking overtime and pulling out by its roots because we desire time to rest. When we put the radical in front of self-care, it might mean leaving a toxic relationship, friendship or lover. It means pulling things up by their roots, and that’s anything that no longer serve you.
Selfcare is planting everything you want. It’s planting the carrots in your life, it’s planting the time in the day for you to be with your God. It’s planting the vision in your mind of the kind of man or woman or partner that would make you incredibly happy and manifesting that in your life. And it’s spiraling up so you’re prepared for that kind of love is… The self-care part is the action, the radical is the how, and it is the clearing of the pathway that is so important.
MadameNoire: We do not want this interview to end! We do have one last question for you. How did finding your individual self-care practice lead you to wanting to motivate Black women all over the country, and really the world, to tap into their own self-care practices through the sisterhood of GirlTrek?
I embody this notion that I am not disconnected from you, I’m not disconnected from the sister in the markets of Africa… You know what I mean? Like, I’m just not… And we know this is true because plants communicate even when their roots aren’t touching. And nature teaches us everything we need to know about how we should move through life. It’s like our sister Tabitha Brown says: don’t you go making somebody else’s day bad. Monitor the energy you bring into the room. Because we’re connected, and if you find pathways, bring as many sisters as you can with you. Harriet Tubman taught us that. You go and try to find your way first, then when you learn the way, come back and get your sisters, and so that’s what Vanessa and I did… We took years trying to find a pathway that led to joy, that led to liberation, that led to laughter and friendship and good love and all sorts of things, and as soon as we started finding openings, we came back for people we love, and they came back for people they love. So, it’s interesting when people ask, “How did you start this big organization?” Because the answer is, I didn’t. I started organizing myself, my body, my life, my friends, my family. And they did the same— and collectively, we now are this huge movement.
Josie Pickens is an educator, a writer, a culture critic and a community organizer based in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @jonubian.