Creating a space in Kalamazoo where all runners feel comfortable running in public

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

On a sunny June 22, at Mayors' Riverfront Park, Eric Cunningham (Kalamazoo City Commissioner) and Carmen James (fitness instructor and owner of Fit Bellavei) were leading a warmup of a very diverse group of fitness enthusiasts.

The group stretching and running-in-place was multi-racial and multi-body-type, from toned to plus-size. There were men, women, children, tots in strollers. People who were prepared to run a couple miles to those who were going for a leisurely stroll.

To a DJ spinning James Brown and the Sugarhill Gang, Cunningham and James had everyone stretching and moving in their own ways before hitting the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.

Cunningham, James, and Regina Miller formed Run This Town, which holds intentionally multi-racial fitness and networking events in Kalamazoo.

Run This Town encourages everyone to come to their weekly fitness events, Cunningham says. "All fitness levels, be it off-the-couch or distance runner.... As you scan the crowd you'll notice it's a collective of individuals in our community wide-ranging in age... we're pet friendly, child friendly...." 

Carmen James (red shirt) warming-up the RTT group.A big part of the motivation behind Run This Town is the need to make all runners feel comfortable running in public, he says. 

The 2020 Ahmaud Arbry murder in Georgia made it horrifyingly clear that some people can feel comfortable running through any neighborhood, and some people can't. Arbry was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood when three white residents in a pickup chased him down, confronted him, and shot him dead.

To put it bluntly, feeling free to be active and fit on neighborhood streets is a matter of race and privilege. Some will feel eyes on them if they try a new jogging route, if they ride a bike through a rural small town or affluent neighborhood, or if they just take a walk past that certain street they usually don't cross.

Is this a big issue, that some people can jog in any neighborhood without worry, some people can't, and that comes down to skin color?

"Exactly. Yeah, I mean, we know this to be true in the African-American community," Cunningham says. "I think other communities are just now getting exposed to some of the issues the African-American community has had to deal with."

"And it's an almost unwritten rule, that there are certain communities that are comfortable, and other communities that are uninviting. Whether that's intentional or unintentional, that's a reality. So, if it's something that people care about, then it's something that they will be intentional about, to make sure that individuals feel comfortable coming into their space," he says.

Another major motivation behind Run This Town is to make group workouts into inclusive networking events. 

Run This Town participants hit the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. There's no pressure -- they're allowed to run or walk all or some of the two-mile round trip.Cunningham was inspired when he went to Detroit in 2012 and took part in an event called Networking Out. He was one of around 400 African-American professionals "getting together to network, and then work out," he says. 

It was an "amazing opportunity," he says. "Typically when you network, it's groups of individuals in the same industry, whereas this opportunity brings out a hodgepodge of people."

He helped do the same in Kalamazoo around five years ago with NetworkingOut: Kalamazoo, which later became Run This Town. "The population over there (in Detroit) is a little different from ours. We still targeted professionals, but we opened our doors to everybody and anybody. Make sure that everybody feels comfortable in this environment."

Cunningham bounded off to lead the crowd in enthusiastic stretches; James took his place in front of our mic.  

She tells us, "The event is about networking, but also inclusion."

Does James feel comfortable running in Kalamazoo?

Eric Cunningham leading a Run This Town warm-up"I do, but it's because I was fortunate enough to be raised by a woman who exposed me to many different people, lifestyles, cultures, so I feel more comfortable in most areas. But I know that's not the norm, either."

At the June 22 event, with the theme of "Run This City For Men's Health," there were Chris Lampen-Crowell and his Gazelle Sports people, staff from Bell's Brewery, plus members of community groups such as the Fatherhood Network, Kalamazoo Black Male Alliance and Kalamazoo Men of Purpose -- gathered to chat, to stretch, and to run or stroll together.

'I personalize it.'

Lampen-Crowell was staying in the background of the event, but as co-owner of Gazelle Sports, the Kalamazoo-based running equipment chain, he's made sure to support Run This Town as a sponsor.

Talking earlier in June, Lampen-Crowell says he's always seen himself as "a nice guy," but one who'd always been on the sidelines when it came to matters of diversity. When the Black Lives Matter movement swept the country last year, "I really decided I need to be part of the solution instead of just watching and observing."

He decided that the lack of people of color in the running community was a problem he had to do something about. He helped co-found the Running Industry Diversity Coalition, a non-profit with the goal of bringing diversity to running from the top of the industry on down.

It was the Arbery killing that woke Lampen-Crowell. "I would say that was the point that created a personal connection to what had been happening for years with black people and black men, in particular, being killed by police, or other terrible incidents. A runner, young man running through a neighborhood, was chased down and killed," Lampen-Crowell says.

This was a fellow runner. "I personalize it. I can see myself and I can definitely see my youngest son Stewart running through a neighborhood and getting chased down. I just couldn't stop thinking about it."

Chris Lampen-Crowell co-founded the non-profit Running Industry Diversity Coalition, to address the lack of diversity in the running industry.Lampen-Crowell began talking to Gazelle management and people in the running community about lack of diversity, "then the George Floyd murder happened," he says. It was clear, "we cannot be on the sidelines."

If you look at any track event or marathon, it's clear that running is a sport of many colors. Yet, when it comes to individuals running for fun, for health, outside of tracks, and off of gym treadmills, it's an activity that seems mostly white, he's observed.

Lampen-Crowell points to big figures in the culture of running, like Ted Corbitt, the first African-American Olympic marathon runner, who also helped popularize street running with the New York Road Runners club in 1958, when the idea of running in the streets as a hobby or sport was not common. His club was also a rarity in the '50s, in that it didn't limit membership according to race. 

But still, there are legitimate safety worries about jogging-while-Black. Lampen-Crowell knows of a Black marathoner, not in Kalamazoo, who was "in his first training for his first marathon... and he got stopped by the police. They were like, 'What are you doing?' They were looking for a crime suspect, but they just pulled him over, and that just freaked him out." 

The runner now trains on a treadmill at home. "He's done multiple marathons, but he won't go outside to train. He's hidden because he doesn't feel safe." 

What can the industry do to change this?

In the running industry, from major brands like Nike to Gazelle's five sporting goods stores, as well as in running events and clubs, "almost all of the decision-makers and leadership in those parts of the industry are all white," he says. 

"You have people with their own bias and their own white privilege making decisions that perpetuate, and in their own relationships, perpetuate just more whiteness in the industry."

Lampen-Crowell thinks that the first step is acknowledgment, the next is reaching out. "We need to understand where we're at, how we got there, and then start untangling it by building relationships and building conversation about what is it that we're willing to do together," he says.

"This is a generational thing, it's not like we're going to get this done in the next year or two," he admits.

"You have to build the relationships... there are too many white people who've been like the 'white savior.'" 

In other words, as a white business owner he can't simply take charge of the change, and approach runners of color with an "Oh, come join us!" he says. "That's not the way to do it. It's like what Eric and Regina and Carmen are doing, making their own group, so let's support them."

'How do you go out and meet your neighbors?'

We saw firsthand how Run This Town events naturally build relationships and build conversations. 

As everyone hit the trail, this reporter tagged along to take photos and ask questions. We got into a long discussion with Ramon Harbin, board member with the young men's mentorship group Men of Purpose. 

He was also shooting photos. "I'm a photographer, and I like to document positive change," he says.

Harbin got into his life story. He's 43, a former Muslim, now Christian. "I have four boys, one in the oven now." He moved to Kalamazoo from Minneapolis in 2013. "I knew (George) Floyd, personally," he says, quietly.

He feels that many young men in Kalamazoo, compared to Minneapolis, have no ambition. "There's no hope, so they say 'f--- - it, I'm just going to sell drugs or take the loser's way out.' I go, No! We can't do that! Life is too valuable," he says. 

"I want to show them a tangible example that anybody can do it. You're talking to a guy who was drug-dealing on the streets of Chicago, who was a gangbanger when he was 9, was supposed to be dead by the time he was 21, tried to kill himself when he was 27 with a gun, and I'm still here."

He's frustrated with how "we dance around the issues," he says.

The Black community has to get out into society, into the wider conversation, participate in events that get them out into the wider community, he says. Many people "jump on the bandwagon," Harbin says, but "we need people to control the bandwagon." 

"It starts with a desire, of wanting more for ourselves, first of all.... You want more, you desire more, you do more. You figure out, where do I plugin? Where do I help?"

He affectionately points out a few youth walking with him, "these knuckleheads -- er, young men," as the reason he was walking for something more than just fitness.

"Somebody has to sacrifice, and teach, and say, okay, let me take you by the hand," he says.

"Or, hell, just say hello, kind of like what you're doing. That's where it starts -- 'Hey, how you guys doing?'"

He thinks of a "Sesame Street" segment he saw as a kid, that asked, "How do you go out and meet your neighbors? Just go out and say, 'Hello.' It's not that hard!"


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.