Lakeysha Sowunmi, Coordinator African American Campaign for Network for a Healthy California
Stephanie Tomlinson, member and ambassador for Black Girls Run San Diego
Related Story: 'Black Girls Run' Act As Ambassadors For Exercise
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Last year, during black history month, we told you about a new cookbook which turned traditional soul food recipes into healthy eating. It was promoted by a woman who wanted to change the health habits of African Americans. The center of disease control says African Americans have rates of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity much hire than other populations. This year, the same guest returns with a mission to get black women into exercise, and to explain why working out has extra challenges for African American women. I'd like to welcome back Lakeysha Sowunmi, she is coordinator of the African American campaign network for a healthy California in San Diego and imperial counties. Welcome back.
SOWUNMI: Hi, Maureen. Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Stephanie Tomlinson is here too, member is ambassador for black girls run San Diego. Welcome to the show.
TOMLINSON: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Lakeysha, I mentioned that there are some bad health statistics in the introduction around African Americans. Remind us what they are.
SOWUNMI: Well, Maureen, in California alone, 68% of African American adults are overweight. And in San Diego County, 65% of black women are overweight or obese.
CAVANAUGH: What are some of the reasons for that?
SOWUNMI: Well, you know, I would definitely have to start by saying our diets and the lack of physical activity.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what about -- you'll have to give me a little bit more than that. What about -- what are African Americans eating that people in the larger American population aren't eating as much of as?
[ LAUGHTER ]
SOWUNMI: Well, you know, we are eating 35% more fried foods than any other ethnicity and we also are consuming more sugary drinks, and we're not exercising at least 30 minutes each day.
CAVANAUGH: Now let's talk about exercise. I think probably a lot of people have trouble getting themselves to work out as often as they should. But this is particularly a big problem too in the African American community, right?
CAVANAUGH: Why is that?
SOWUNMI: Well, you know, there are many barriers to physical activity. And one of the barriers are the fact that most African American women aren't exercising because they don't want to ruin their hairstyle.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to talk more about that because I think that it is really crucial issue when someone pointed that out to me, oh, said oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But first I want to bring Stephanie in the conversation because at least for the people involved in Black Girls Run, you've kind of overcome whatever challenges face black women and you --
TOMLINSON: On the east coast back in 2009 and Ashley hick, and they both saw that -- by becoming more active. And becoming more health conscious. So in that aspect, they looked around and saw that it was just out of control. And in 2009, they launched a blog, which eventually in 2010, 2011, turned into a website. And that's where we came up with black girls run. And there's over 60 chapters around the nation, and in August of last year, Tamala, one of our ambassadors contacted them and said where's the San Diego chapter?
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, uh-huh.
TOMLINSON: And they said, there isn't one, so they started one. Since then, we have about 90 members.
CAVANAUGH: And what kind of activities do you host?
TOMLINSON: Any type of activities, really. We really do, like, black girls run. So it's mostly geared toward running. However, we have walker, joggers, marathoners, anywhere from beginning to advanced that can come out and do it. We also have a personnel trainer, she comes out and does cross training activities with us. So we're always open to different things, and we have a chapter in North County, and they like to do hiking. But anywhere, there's any suggestions, we take them and we'll do them if we have the time and the space.
CAVANAUGH: Stephanie, have you always been interested in fitness?
TOMLINSON: Always. All my life.
CAVANAUGH: And what about your friends? Was it something that they questioned, like why are you doing this?
TOMLINSON: Of course! I had those. But I have my friends too that are as active as a am. Or try to be as active as I. Then I have my friends who I'm trying to get more active. And they always have the excuse, well, I just don't have the time. Well, who does, really? You have to make the time. If it's important to you, you're going to make the time. If I only have 20 minute, I'm going to go, hit the gym, do whatever I have to do and do it for 20 minutes. And I'm going to get it done and get out.
CAVANAUGH: Regina Benjamin has taken some criticism because she pointed out that one of the reasons black women don't like to work out and because of their hair. And Lakeysha, tell us some reasons why that would be an impediment.
SOWUNMI: Well, basically, if you spend an hour or two hours in the beauty shop, and you're spending anywhere from 90 to $100 on your hair, and then you go out and you exercise, then there's your money down the drain because you feel like your hair is going to sweat. And usually your hair does sweat. But you shouldn't let your hairstyle affect your physical activity.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the surge an general got some criticism as I say, because -- and the criticism involved, well, this is like an inconsequential, why are you spending your time talking about this? But it would seem to me that this would be a pretty big thing. If you spend a lot of money on your hair and one good run is going to make it just the way it was before you went into the beauty salon, then why would you want to run?
SOWUNMI: Well, she has to be careful, and we all do in trivializing --
TOMLINSON: And offending people when it comes to that. A lot of black women, they are defined by their hair. They get their hair done religiously, every week. And that's what they do. They're going to spend their money on their hair first. So Lakeysha is trying to address that and say there are other alternatives. I did it because it was something I always wanted to do. And it's not one of those things that's going to define what I do.
CAVANAUGH: What are some of the other alternatives that you're offering to African American women who say I'm not going to exercise because of my hair?
SOWUNMI: Basically, I would just say take small steps. The first thing you can do is communicate with your hair stylist. Keep the lines of communication open. Let your hair stylist know that you are looking for a style that's conducive to your lifestyle. And come up with something or create something that will last for a while. The main thing is keeping the communication lines open.
CAVANAUGH: Do you see this -- because I know a lot of white women who won't exercise because of their hair as well.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: And do you see this as an excuse or a valid reason? Stephanie.
TOMLINSON: Well, for me, I could see it -- if I put myself in certain people's shoes, that it is a valid reason. Because you do spend a lot of money, a lot of time, and you see it as I'm invested in this, this is my investment. This is my hair. So I do have to take care of it. And that's how they see it. You know? But for me, it's not. People kind of look for little excuses not to exercise. And we're hoping by dialoguing, getting together, we could help them come up with little ways to get over that.
CAVANAUGH: Lakeysha shaking her head yes.
SOWUNMI: Yes! Yes!
CAVANAUGH: More an excuse, right?
[ LAUGHTER ]
SOWUNMI: And I think I want to add to what Stephanie said, I think I changed my hair so many times. So I can sympathize with everybody. I don't want to be insensitive to people, because I change my hair a lot. And I understand that the sweating and the exercise, it may discourage you from exercising, but for me, it becomes personnel. I have diabetes -- I have diabetes that run in my family, high blood pressure, hypertension, and all of these different type diseases that I know I can prevent by exercising. So I'm going to do what I have to do to prevent those diseases.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I do not want to leave the impression that this is the only impediment that black American, black San Diegans face in getting out and exercising. One has to do with walkability of neighborhoods. Lakeysha, explain to us what that means.
SOWUNMI: Well, one of the barriers that we also hear a lot is maybe it's not safe around the neighborhood to walk, or maybe it's not safe in the neighborhood to run, or whatever type of physical activity that you want to do. But once again, it's all about where your priority is. For me for example, I can always just run outside. You don't need a gym membership to be physically active. I run around my neighborhood. With black girls run, we team up with them, and they're able to provide that support so if people are using it for an excuse, well, it's the walkability issue. With black girls run, they can actually help them, and provide them with the resources that they can use to become physically active.
CAVANAUGH: Is there anything the larger community can do to make neighborhoods more walkable? Is there any kind of a movement that you have to try to promote that?
SOWUNMI: Yes, well, we encourage the residents to speak up; bring in the council member, bring in all of the leaders that can actually make a change. On our website, we have a check list that the residents request take charge and go through these steps and through this check list to bring change in their own community.
CAVANAUGH: And have you encountered, Stephanie, when you're planning out where black girls run is going to be holding an event or something that there are some areas that are more conducive than others?
TOMLINSON: Oh, absolutely. And that's why we try to take it to places where there's either -- if we know we're going to have a lot of beginner walkers or people who are going to jog lightly, we'll get into an area where it's mostly flat.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, sure.
TOMLINSON: Like lake Murray, or Lincoln high school. And areas like that where it's in it those neighborhoods where we're trying to target, but it's also -- the terrain is nice enough where it's not hard on their knees. Of and the excuses should be minimized.
CAVANAUGH: During our conversation, you both made reference to having conversations with people and talking about those issues and promoting exercise and so forth. How do you actually outreach with the community? What do you do, are Lakeysha?
SOWUNMI: Well, with the network for a healthy California, we have the body and soul program, which is a health and wellness curriculum for African American churches. So one of the things that we do is we go in the African American churches and we conduct physical activity demonstrations, and then from there, we train the leaders in the church to train the congregation. And also, we have a box kit, how to do basic physical activity, exercising and walking and dancing, and just basic things so we can get the community to move more.
CAVANAUGH: And how about you, Stephanie? How do you outreach?
TOMLINSON: Black girls run is -- they have a Facebook page, they also have a YouTube and stuff like that. I'm a coach for the San Diego cheetahs. I'm getting ready to play tackle football for the San Diego surge.
TOMLINSON: And I'm a baseball coach. So people know that I'm active. And they'll come to me and ask me about certain things that they can do. And as a San Diego cheetah coach and parent, we also have a group that gets together and do cross-fit type of stuff in the mornings. So we try to reach out even as our group as a team and say, hey, your kid is active, why don't you get active as well?
CAVANAUGH: And lastly, I have to ask you, Lakeysha, to follow up from last year. Was the soul food cookbook, would you say that's a success?
SOWUNMI: Oh, definitely. One of the things that we do is we go into the grocery stores and one way that we provide the resources and tools for the community is by doing a cooking demonstration. We use the cookbook, and people come in and they shop. We had a black eyed peas salsa dish, and a lot of people when they think of black eyed peas, they think I need to add a ham hock in it or some type of fat. But we use mangos, tomatoes and onions, and when people come and taste it, they are blown away because they don't think that they could add more fruits and vegetables to dishes like that. Our response is overwhelming, and it's awesome.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much. So much good information from both of you. Lakeysha Sowunmi of the African American campaign network for a healthy California here in San Diego, and Stephanie Tomlinson, ambassador for black girls run San Diego. Thank you both.
SOWUNMI: Thank you, Maureen.
TOMLINSON: Thank you so much.