The news hit Tenia Fisher hard. Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man in coastal Georgia, had been shot and killed while on a run. For Fisher, a decorated college runner, the sport had long been an escape and a source of joy. But the killing of Arbery confirmed a darker truth that Fisher also knew all too well: That running is too often neither a welcoming nor safe activity for Black Americans.
Fisher, 36, first discovered her love, and talent, for running when she competed in a race at Milwaukee School of Languages middle school. She won and thought, “Oh I like this,” recalls Fisher.
Fisher, it turns out, wasn’t just a skilled athlete, she was a star. In 2003, the North Side native received a full-ride scholarship to UW-Milwaukee to run cross country and track and field. During her four years at UWM, Fisher broke five school records and was inducted into the university’s athletic hall of fame in 2019. Fisher’s gifts, however, were not the only quality that made her unique. “I was the only Black woman on the UWM [cross country] team until my sister got there,” says Fisher, whose three younger siblings were also successful college runners. “I was almost always the only person of color on the distance running team. It was just something I had to adjust to.”
And while Fisher always felt safe running in her UWM gear surrounded by her white teammates – “It told people I was educated and not a threat,” she says – that changed when she graduated. “I started running with one earbud out. Many people feel threatened if they see a Black person running. That’s scary.”
So, Fisher decided to build her own community. In 2015, she joined F.E.A.R. (Forget Everything and Run), an offshoot of Social X MKE, a diversity and inclusion consulting group. As its health and wellness director, Fisher started leading group runs for runners of color twice each week. By early 2020, as many as 40 runners would show up to each session. “It makes a huge difference to run with a group of people who look like you,” she says. “A group of people who have your back – literally.”
Though coronavirus restrictions meant F.E.A.R. had to shift online this spring, the killing of George Floyd in police custody, a tragedy that also brought renewed anger and attention to Arbery’s death, reminded Fisher why she joined F.E.A.R. in the first place. “People need this community. And now, running is also a form of protest.”
What work needs to be done to improve a sense of community in Milwaukee?
“I really don’t like that Milwaukee is known as one of the most segregated cities. It’s terrible. We need to start there. For me, I know there’s a void of people of color being represented in the running community. So that’s where I can start – in my community. But we all need to do that work. Everyone should feel welcome in every neighborhood.”
Join us in toasting the inaugural Unity Awards winners in a virtual event including a panel discussion moderated by Dominique Samari of P3 with the honorees and a keynote address from featured speaker Rev. Nontombi Naomi Tutu. We would like to thank our presenting sponsor Quad and our keynote sponsor Molson Coors. The event is 7:30-9 a.m. on Feb. 25. For more information go to: milwaukeemag.com/unityawardsevent.