United Bodies

The Liberating Power of Movement With Morgan Dixon and Aj Williams


February 23, 2024

With Guests:

  • Aj Williams is a documentary filmmaker, photographer and journalist who works to communicate stories from our planet, its communities, and what is changing collective understandings of them both for the better. They are a disabled kidney transplant recipient who lives with chronic illness, and are currently working on several projects at the nexus of disability, health and environment. Aj’s work has been featured in outlets from GRIST magazine, to Outside online and PBS.
  • Morgan Dixon is the leader of the largest health movement in America for Black women, GirlTrek, with over one million members, two major TED Talks and a viral podcast called Black History Bootcamp. She is currently a visiting innovator at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Morgan currently works from Ghana, West Africa to unite women and girls worldwide for health justice.

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In this Episode:

Moving your body, in any way you can, can be a liberating experience—to feel your power, your strength, your security and resiliency through a step forward, a dance, a roll or stroll through nature.

Studies support this—movement has a profound impact on our brains: reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, encouraging creativity and ingenuity. Think about it: when we are babies, we move our bodies naturally. We are born with the desire to move because movement feels good to us.

But as adults our natural inclination to move is co-opted and politicized by diet culture and the wellness industrial complex. We are told to move in ways or for purposes that hurt, make us feel weak, or ashamed. When we take back movement for ourselves, not as vigorous exercise or to lose weight, we find that joy, personal power, and meaning all are available to us through moving our bodies.

So today, we’re going to explore how two efforts centered around movement are leading to transformative liberation for those involved, starting with Morgan Dixon and GirlTrek and following with AJ Williams, a documentarian working on a film about accessible recreation.

For more, follow: 

Morgan @morgantreks

Aj @ajwdoc




KENDALL CIESEMIER [00:00:01] Welcome to United Bodies, a podcast about the lived experience of health. I’m Kendall Ciesemier, your host. 

Moving your body in any way you can, can be a liberating experience, to feel your power, your strength, your security and resiliency, through a step forward, a dance, a roll or a stroll through nature. Study support this movement has a profound impact on our brains, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, encouraging creativity and ingenuity. Think about it. When we are babies, we move our bodies naturally. We are born with the desire to move because movement feels good to us. But as adults, our natural inclination to move is co-opted and politicized by diet culture and the wellness industrial complex. We are told to move in ways or for purposes that hurt, make us feel weak or ashamed. When we take back movement for ourselves, not as vigorous exercise or to lose weight, we find that joy, personal power, and meaning are all available to us through moving our bodies. So today we’re going to explore how two efforts centered around movement are leading to transformative liberation for those involved. Starting with Morgan Dixon and Girl Trek and following with AJ Williams, a documentarian working on a film about accessible recreation.


Morgan Dixon co-founded Girl Trek, a movement of Black women, leveraging the historic legacy of walking and the power of self-care as a pathway for healing and transformation, the beginnings of which she and her friend Vanessa devised while at college at the University of Southern California, but Morgan reminded me that Girl Trek and all of its principles were actually planted in her far before she went to college.


The truth of the matter is that girl Trek didn’t start with Vanessa and I, the truth of the matter is that we are the daughters of freedom fighters. My mom de-segregated her high school in Oklahoma, her mom was a sharecropper, who lived through such abject poverty that she gave birth on a school bus that was abandoned in the field that she and her 11 children tended to, and that her mother was, you know, literally living in, in terror in America at the height of lynching. And that every, on my father’s, you know, on my paternal side, that every man in my family generation after generation fought for this country, and that the veterans of this country from the American Revolution, literally 1777, I can trace my history back to when my seventh great grandfather died, is, you know, it takes a toll on people, not just B

lack women, but on a people. And then you add in the legacy of slavery, and you add in the legacies, of sexism and also in chronic poverty. And you get to where we are today, which is deep, deep, deep inequity. Since I can remember, I wanted to experience what people call the American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I understood the disparities even as a child.


In her desire to both alleviate the disparities she witnessed as a child, and to pry open opportunity for Black women in her family and community, she started an effort that would help move the needle through literal physical movement. With each step, Girl Trek and the million of walkers with them are unlocking their community’s future and their own.


We are, you know, 1.3 million Black women who walk in our neighborhoods and that is awesome for physical health. And that is awesome as a public health movement, and that if we are radically successful, these energize women can then solve for the barriers of health in their neighborhood, as kind of ambassadors of goodwill and neighborhood watch and sneakers. That’s like the robust story that people tell themselves about this, you know, cute walking movement of Black women. And that’s true. And even at, at the very least, if we did that, it might increase life expectancy because walking is the single most powerful thing you can do that is affordable, that is accessible, that radically changes your health outcomes that reduces risk of chronic disease, most chronic diseases, heart disease, stroke by nearly 50%, you know, and so, even if that was our original mission, can we rally a million Black women to walk in their neighborhoods for better health done, mission accomplished. We did that in 2020. Now the question is when you have an army of energized Black women in the highest need communities in America, what do they want to do? And how do we most effectively organize them, and that power to both make a movement of our own and to indirect that power to supporting the movements that promote life in our communities, and that my friend is very complex and sophisticated and revered. And it reminds me of the Montgomery bus boycotts, right, that like when people looked at, you know, Rosa Parks, and you know, all of that, you know, the SCLC, and, you know, all of the people who are involved intimately on the ground, of the of the Montgomery Bus boycotts, people think, I think people thought, oh, you know, those Black people down in Alabama have had enough of discrimination on buses, and they’re going to walk to work. But what they didn’t understand, they didn’t understand is that there were years of planning and strategy, and mostly led by women, mostly led by academic women who were ready, you know, on the printing press, with flyers, telling people who had coordinated efforts to destabilize the economy of the transportation system, so that they could prove a point of communal power. And they did so and commanded the attention of the world. And so we look to that as a blueprint for organizing. 


Organizing is really at the backbone of so much of what you all are doing. And I’m so glad that you already pointed that out. The title of this episode is the liberatory power of movement. And that’s truly, I think, a double meaning. Moving our bodies is liberatory, yes, and we were talking about that specifically, but also, as evidenced in Girl Trek, when we move together, when we organize, we can also liberate ourselves and others, we are essentially building a movement. But every movement starts at the individual level. And the thing I love about Girl Trek, and the thing that really excites me is that it’s so deep. When we think about the word self-care, it’s something that’s long been co-opted, it’s whitewashed, it’s been taken over by capitalism. Self-Care suddenly is buying yourself some product that promises to make you pretty or something. Right. But in a recent interview, you said that we discovered that for us, for Black women, the most seditious acts are actually acts of radical self-care. And that was such a powerful quote, I wonder, why is actual self-care and not the co-opted version of self-care, so seditious. 


You know, I was doing some research on Fannie Lou Hamer is for farm down in Mississippi, I didn’t know that she had like a co-op, and that she fed the poor white and Black in Mississippi. And it was fascinating. As I was researching, I thought I knew everything about Fannie Lou Hamer, because I love her so much. But I knew she registered people to vote. I knew she, you know, she was on the Democratic, the floor of the Democratic caucus. And she was, you know, telling her story of being beaten, trying to walk by police officers. I knew what everybody else knew about Fannie Lou Hamer, but there was one like really obscure interview I listened to. And she talked about when she, you know, she was born and her parents were born into slavery. And then she was born into economic slavery, sharecropping, and that she was they were still functionally working for white people in the same way. And she said, when she was young, but she was caring for a white woman, and which is it’s just something that, God we don’t talk about in our country, that for generations, Black women cared for white families, particularly white women and their babies, as nursemaids as all sorts, and we just that is something like, particularly in the feminist movement, we just don’t talk about. You know what I mean? That yeah, my grandma nursed your grandma. 


Yeah, the entire country, our entire economy rests on Black women, caregivers, and many ways and I think that that is like deeply not acknowledged.


What I was saying about Fannie Lou Hamer is that she when she was working for this white family, she talks about being like in her 20s and it was like, a thriving club scene. Fannie Lou Hamer, okay. And she said, she decided when the family left that she was going to take a bath in the family’s bath and that she says she just got she turned on the bubble, or not turned on the bubble, she put the bubbles in there, she got in the bath. She said she looked through all the clothes was in the closet, picks up, got dressed and went out on the town. And tp me the idea of that feels so seditious that the basic caretaking that we have done for generations, whether it is as vapid as a bubble bath, that we can even claim that time, that space, that authority that permission to care for ourselves. We are experts at caretaking, Black women. Exactly. Imagine if we pour that into ourselves and our families and our communities. It just is something for me that I’m learning that I am more than I am worth more than the labor I provide to other people. And that has been a shift for me as a Black woman to say what does my day look like? And how do I care for myself? How do I care for my man? How do I care for my mom? How do I care for my community? I’m not suggesting that bubble baths are going to heal the world. I’m suggesting that reclaiming our time is, and that re-prioritizing what we believe is worthy of our time will radically shift our communities and families


Back in 2018, I walked with the, I think the Bronx trekkers and the Brooklyn trekkers. Oh, my goodness is right, we walked across both the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. And it was, it was an amazing experience. And I, you know, got to go into the homes of some of the Bronx trekkers and we, they cooked for me, the whole thing was just beautiful. And, and I think it was, it was hard even then to describe kind of the transformative nature of, of Black women getting together in that space and like taking the city kind of, and certainly as a white woman myself, you know, I can realize that I am, I’m seeing something that is very powerful happening without fully being able to understand exactly what it is. Yeah. What do you think this experience has taught you and other trekkers about systemic change for both ourselves and others?


There is something that happens when you slow down. There is something that happens when you move at a human pace. When you feel the sun on your skin. When you hear the birds again, when you are not gripped by fear or poverty or deficit, or scarcity. And you start to walk in abundance. And it is almost a meditation of movement, where you open your front door. And in discipline, I mean strong and beautiful discipline, you decide to walk out every day, you are walking in a direction of hope, that you’re walking in the direction of promise. We’re solving for something we call the three deadly I’s. And we listened to just all of our members. And we really like said, Okay, we hear that that is killing Black woman, we hear that this is killing Black woman. And we really distilled it into a framework called the three deadly I’s. Those I’s are inactivity, because we know sitting is deadly. And we know physical activity just you got to get up and move, we get that. So inactivity is the easiest one to understand. The second one is isolation. And there’s research out that isolation. We all have experienced that now because of COVID. But you think about the gentrification of neighborhoods, you think about Black people living in these kinds of disparate suburbs and you think about everything from the prison industrial complex that has destroyed Black families, right, all sorts of thing. Isolation is deadly. There was a report that said isolation and loneliness, particularly with senior citizens is deadlier than cigarette smoking. It’s deadly. So inactivity, isolation. And the last one is injustice. And we’re talking everything about from affordable childcare that does not allow you to have like the job that you want, because you need to stay home with your children to mortality rates for mothers who are giving birth, which are in many states of this union, similar to completely undeveloped countries for Black women. It’s unreal, the levels of injustice that Black women are facing in America. So inactivity, isolation and injustice and girl trek solves for all three. We identified all of the things that were going on in our community that we thought were leading to early death, and one of the things was mental health crisis. So whether it is deep and chronic and oftentimes functional depression, whether it is an anxiety, whether it is you know, hypertension comes from stress, hypertension comes from diet, activity and stress, right and so if we can start to control for those things, so we are training all of our organizers in Mental Health First Aid so that people when they are experiencing mental health emergencies, and they don’t want to call the ambulance because they can’t afford it, they don’t want to call the police because they don’t, they don’t trust that the police will not criminalize the mental health crisis, they have somewhere to go. And they can go on support walks with Girl Trek and talk about what’s happening in their lives. It’s powerful. And once you get those crews up and going, what happens is they start to identify the needs in their communities. And then we train and provide funding for them to make change in their community. So Pam Jenner, for example, in Colorado, identified a toxic runoff–


I met Pam, I met Pam! I met Pam in the airport, in the Colorado airport, you all were going to go hiking. 


You know what, that doesn’t surprise me because she is a billboard for radical change.


She was wearing Girl Trek. And I had just done this story with you all. And I saw the Girl Trek shirt and I was like, I know Girl Trek. I was just with Morgan!


Holy cow. She’s a regional co-chair. No, it doesn’t surprise me that she’s in the Denver Airport, doesn’t surprise me she has our girl trek shirt on and that she talked to you with such enthusiasm. She’s a regional coach. And the reason she became a regional coach is because she started identifying issues in, all across Colorado, but in Denver, I started getting emails from city planners mayor, like all sorts of people and they were like, yeah, so Pam is making us reroute this toxic runoff that has been there for 40 years in the Black community. And like these works, she’s putting crosswalks at deadly intersections where kids have been killed. She’s put overpasses for mobility issues for senior citizens. She’s on believable when it comes to changing the built environment in her community. Stanford has featured her, she’s incredible. But you think about Pam Jenner’s all across the country who are trained in improving walkability, who were trained in Mental Health First Aid, who were trained at like advocacy and going to city council meetings. We have Girl Trek members who have joined this the school board, who have run for office. I mean it is unbelievable what happens when Black women are energized cared for and united.


It is unbelievable what Black women walking with Girl Trek are doing for themselves and for their communities. Movement begets movement, literally. I continue to be inspired by Morgan Dixon and her commitment to putting one foot in front of the other, leading us in word and deed towards our collective liberation. 

Next, I spoke with AJ Williams, journalist, documentarian and outdoor adventurer to learn about her experience accessing outdoor recreation as a disabled person and the value it holds in her life, and the lives of other disabled people around her.

You’ve been exploring what accessibility looks like and should look like in outdoor recreation as a journalist and documentarian. But before that this pursuit was a personal one. So, I wonder if we can start by just talking about first what you find special about the outdoors? What does it do for you? And maybe when did you realize that being outside offered you something particular?

AJ Williams 18:34

That’s actually a really good question. I grew up with a park behind my house. And so I spent a lot of time outside growing up. But when that really became important, was actually when I was inpatient in the hospital. And I don’t know if you had this similar experience Kendall, but all I wanted to do was to be outdoors. And to break into that like, little center. 


The courtyard.


Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I don’t know who didn’t jailbreak to the courtyard. Totally.


And they locked it so often, just rude. Like, why are you locking the outside from me?

AJ Williams 19:11

Yeah. I mean, in retrospect, you’re probably right, it. I don’t know that it was like the thing that I went missing for like six hours at a time. But yes, like, that was where I was every single time. And I think that really taught me this important lesson that access is to the outdoors, however, that looks for you is a human right. It’s also a human need, like connecting with nature in one way or another. And so what I’ve realized is that looks really different for different people, how they define that is really based on the environment that they grew up in or spend time in as an adult. So for me these days that looks like you know, being in my backyard or being in the mountain right behind my house, but that has also looked like being at the City Park, like you know, the neighborhood stroll, like sitting on my back porch like that’s all nature, and we should be valuing all of those things equally, because they are, right. And it’s about being able to have that connection. I think that really goes into, like, if we, I don’t know. I think also just thinking from an environmental standpoint, if we are expected to care about the places that we live in, we need to have that connection to them. And so I think being able to have that connection is a right, that not everyone has right now. And so I think, yeah, just kind of reframing how we’re thinking about access is really important. It’s not just like, you know, ice climbing, which I’ve done before, like, that’s an incredible form of access. But that’s also again, like I was saying, like being able to have a safe environment so that you’re able to just enjoy the air outside of your home.


I love that. And, you know, to be able to enjoy the air outside of your home already, I’m thinking of people who live in pollution zones, where corporations have set up camp and knowingly polluted water sources or the air. So, you’re right, not everyone has access to kind of breathable, clean, safe air. That’s something that I think a lot of us take for granted. And I think it’s going to be something that we see encroached upon even further. As you know, our climate crisis becomes more and more heightened. You know, it’s so interesting that you say that it started when you were inpatient, because I have to say that I think I agree, based on my own experience, being outside was never so important to me, when I couldn’t do it, like when it was inhibited by over air conditioned, sterile, like purified indoor air. And I viscerally kind of felt that I just wanted to feel the sun on my face. You know, it was summer, and I spent a lot of time in patient and as a kid, and I actually, even at nighttime, I would go down and like I couldn’t sleep often. And I would go on a walk with my dad. And we’d go down to the courtyard and try to break into the courtyard to just sit outside, in like peace and quiet in this tiny little outdoor space. And actually, that brings me to, you know, how we met, which was on this kid’s advisory board. And I remember, they asked us one meeting, what is the thing that you want the most in the new hospital, they were building a new hospital, where they’re going to be moving the Children’s Hospital to a new location. And we were there to kind of consult on what that was going to look like. And this is the very beginning like the ideation stage. And I said, I want an outdoor space. And they were like, well, it is in the middle of the city. And it’s, you know, a city that’s not shy with their environmental elements, you get the snow, the wind, the cold, etcetera, etcetera. And I was like, Okay, well figure it out. I don’t know what to say. There needs to be an outdoor space. But yeah, that’s so interesting. I actually didn’t even think of that for you when I was like, picturing this question. So that’s actually very, very cool to hear you say that. 

I want to talk about your college experience, because I feel like this is perhaps when you became really aware of just how inaccessible the outdoors could be. In an article for the Grist, you write about joining your college’s Outdoor Recreation Club, and you say, “I introduced myself to one of the group’s leaders and expressed my eagerness to try backpacking, in spite of my preexisting conditions. I was nervous but excited. I couldn’t wait for the spring break backpacking trip. However, when it came time to sign up, the club’s leader pulled me aside and told me, I couldn’t ask for special treatment or access to trips because of my medical issues. They said, You need to consider what’s best for group when you sign yourself up for risky situations. So I should sign up for trips at my own level.” When I read this, AJ, my stomach really fell into my butt for you. Because I can imagine myself in that situation, and that’s how I would feel. What was this like for you to have this interaction? So early on your time in college and you’re trying to join a new club? What kind of messages did you get from this?

AJ Williams 24:43

I got a lot of different messages from it. I would say that that’s a situation that I honestly feel like I gaslit myself about for a long time. I was really unsure for a while like, Okay, I really must have done something wrong here, by just assuming that I, you know, would be able to have these conversations with people who are leading the trips and figuring out, like, what would work for me? You know, could we create a plan that like would best suit or not that suit, but just to accommodate me going on a trip like that, because a lot of people weren’t making those trips with them in mind at that point. There are a lot of amazing groups that do that work specifically, but like we’re talking like a small liberal arts college like that was not at, you know, in like, yeah, the early 20-5eens. So that was not what was going through a lot of their minds. And that also, I think, really showed, the culture that we have that we have we are up against in the outdoors, in a lot of ways people are working really hard to change that right now. And they are, right, like the outdoors looks really different these days than it used to. And I guess I can see that like living near these bigger outdoor communities. And when I say like, it looks really different, you know, that’s maybe those circles that I run in. Right. And that’s also to say, there’s boatloads more of work to do. Oh, my God, this is just the beginning. It actually feels good to hear you say that your stomach dropped too. And, you know, I mean, it was great. This was me reaching out, trying a new thing.


Which is also a vulnerable situation, like anyone knows that when you start, you’re trying to start something new, you’re new to college, like, you’re just trying to find your place. And any, any tiny little thing that someone could say, could really throw you off. And but this wasn’t in tiny, like this was significant in my mind.


It really was significant, I would say. Yeah, you know, and I think that made me push harder for trying to change it, where I was, because I was like, well, I don’t want to not do this because of this person. And this person is temporary, like, butmy love for the outdoors, I knew at that point was going to be probably like a lifelong thing. I think that this quote all the time that Imani Barbarin said, and shared on their social media–


Who is also going to be on the podcast… I think at this point, she’ll already have been on the podcast.


So she says if to say disabled people want to do fuck shit, they should be able to do it accessibly. And I really feel that in my bones. I especially feel back with the adaptive sports communities. Like you see that wherever you’re out. But yeah, I, I would say like that experience. I look back on that experience with that group leader back in college and I really think like, that’s not like, that’s just not it. And I’m so glad to be surrounded by people who know that’s not it anymore. And also just be talking to people for work, who were like actively showing that that hasn’t been it for a really long time.


I want to go back to that interaction for a second. You also wrote the piece that this person then says after that whole spiel about how you really need to understand that you know, your risks, and not put us in all of us into a bad situation, because you’re taking on a trip that you can’t handle or whatever. That’s a nice summary. You write that this person then says, and hey, you could even lead an accessible trip. Meaning that you could take it on upon yourself being new to this community to like, then figure out how to lead a trip of your own “an accessible trip,” a different trip, I don’t want to have to accommodate you, I want you to accommodate yourself, essentially, planning your own trips, though, is a burden. And they put that on you in order to be able to participate. And I wonder, you know how you felt about that at the time and why you ended up taking up that task to plan your own accessible trips and college?


It’s a good question, Kendall. You’re like, getting me fired back up about this. No, no, it’s good. I mean, it’s good. I think these are, these are really important points to dig into. Because right, we look back and we’re like, oh, well, I just I did it because I had to, and I did it. You’re right. I didn’t have to do it. At the time, it felt like I want to do this thing. So, I’m gonna figure out a way to do this thing. And I think that yes, was actually really easy because I had an accomplice of that. And that was my sister, who I went to college with. So yeah, my wonderful old older sibling, was already a part of this Outdoor Recreation Club. I had actually been on like one of her overnight trips before and I was like, Ally, let’s do it. So I think that that partnership was really what made that possible for me. And so I think that’s something that we know a lot, right? Like, having people in our corner who were like, Yeah, I’m here for it, let’s make it happen that makes that, yes, 1000 times easier, when we feel truly supported and what we want to get out and do. And I think, you know, Ali often says, when this comes up that like, Oh, but I still have so much to learn. And I’ve learned so much from you since then. And that’s probably true. But it’s also recognizing that like, AJ, getting out in a way means that other people like AJ will be able to do this to


You mean that you’re not the only one who, who needs an accommodation in life? 40% of Americans live with a chronic or incurable condition. So whether or not they want to classify themselves as having a disability, you know, disability is a spectrum. And it’s also an identity that people can adopt as they wish. But plenty of people. I mean, if you think about even just food, right, like when you’re thinking about, like, what people eat, accommodations are everywhere. It’s a very normal part of life. And for some reason, we’ve decided that certain kinds of accommodations are not a standard, not part of the ecosystem that we’re willing to deal with. There are othered, they are different. So, you know, I’m, you’re not the only one. You were not the only one. Yeah, though, they treated you like you were potentially the only one.


Accommodations are accommodations, and we all should be able to have them however we identify.


Yeah, we don’t need to have everyone on the same team, or same page of how they identify to know that everyone will benefit from the social and economic liberties that are afforded when we believe that all people should have access and include disability access in that.

AJ Williams 32:07

Yep. It’s kind of like the way that I talked about autoimmune diseases sometimes, especially in COVID. You know, because people think they’re one thing and I’m like, well, they’re also kind of allergies. They’re also cancer. Like, they’re also diabetes. Like, there’s a lot to this, I think, that falls on this bucket, especially when you’re talking about environment, just like, flagged out. Yeah, like I think about my own disease, right, like, where did I get that? Likely from pollution? Likely from living in a city? Within these areas? Like who’s experiencing environmental racism the most? Right? We know the answer to that. And that’s people of color. And so when we look at like, the intersectionality, of who’s not getting access to that clean air, and then also who’s being affected by disabilities the most, oh, my god, like, we need to be working at that axis more, especially for accessing these public spaces. And that’s like a whole different actually field that I feel like I’ve been able to get some exposure to living in Montana, of like, what is outdoor space design? How do we design those, you know, access to equitable access to that in a way that’s more based in universal design, rather than just like ADA compliance? That’s, and that’s a whole different conversation. But yeah, like a lot of the people that I know, who do have physical disabilities are not really in the national parks that much for that reason. 


Hmm. I actually, I want to move there, since you mentioned it. You’re on a journey now to document accessible outdoor recreation and all the ways that it can come. What is that process looking like right now? What’s the documentary look like? What have you learned about accessibility in the process of making it and what did the barriers still look like? And how do they compare to your experience in college?

AJ Williams 33:52

Yeah, so I think so the documentary right now still has a working title, but it’s all about accessing the outdoors. I realized that this community has been around for a really long time. Adaptive Sports has been around for decades. You know, some of these programs are almost 50 years old at this point. So the documentary is a half hour program that will air on PBS, which I’m really excited about locally in Montana, but hopefully further than that, too. And it looks at the nexus of disability and the outdoors and environment. Kind of from three buckets. I thought it would be important to focus on three stories, one being a community, primarily with people with physical disabilities. And then there’s also a bucket, people who have mental disabilities, and then another bucket of people working together who have disabilities and don’t have disabilities like allies to that figuring out how to create these equitable spaces. So I had really great examples of these three stories working with a group out in Montana. called Inclusive Outdoors Project. So they are a group that’s focused on getting people outdoors, who are from historically marginalized backgrounds. So whether that be, you know, you are a queer person, and you’re a person of color, you’re person with disabilities, the nexus of all of those things sometimes, but just making sure that there is, there is a safe cultural space for you to be in to be able to do that. And to take up more space, right, and say, again, like have these hopefully reflect further in our community long term in the outdoors. So they’re an incredible group. This other story I’m really excited about, I’ve been working with the veterans alliance with the Blackfeet Nation, they have a campground that was given back to them by Malmstrom Air Force Base, who previously like bought that land a while back. And, you know, this is all within the Blackfeet reservation. So there’s a lot going on when we explain these things. But, um, so that was repatriated to them. And then that was given from the tribe, then to the Blackfeet Veterans Alliance, to basically have this space to just be. And I think when we look at the statistics around disabilities, veterans, veterans as a huge population bucket within that. Within Montana, I believe it’s about one in 10 people serve within the Blackfeet Nation is even higher than that. So it’s close to one to 12 people serve. Last I checked, at least, but so that was, you know, that’s been a really incredible ongoing experience. I’m really excited for that one. We’re actually doing some filming later this month, with Veteran Hike and some of that campground use. And I think, yeah, when we think about disabilities, and outdoor access, we really, like mental disabilities are really not that much of a part a part of the conversation yet, because it’s all about that physical access. But we’re not thinking about the barriers of mental access. Like when there’s, you know, no map, you’re not sure how far the trails going to be, you’re not sure where the closest bench is, like that stuff that I just can speak from my own experience living with anxiety, I think about all the time. And then the third one is actually it’s a group called the Community Outdoor Recreation Realization Project, the CORR project through the University of Montana, and they’re working with different communities to basically figure out what they want, in their, you know, public lands plans. So they’re working with different communities to figure out, you know, basically, like from this skeletal idea of how do we plan for outdoor recreation in these areas where it hasn’t quite blown up yet? There isn’t quite this, the level of tourism that we’re seeing in other parts of Montana, how do we plan for when that eventually does happen? And how do we plan that in a sustainable way that is both like affirmed by the community and is also creating accessible pathways for all of the community. So that was a really cool experience to be a part of. Yeah, the group that I was working with up in Columbia Falls, Montana was working on an area called the cedar flats, which is built with universal design in mind. And so it’s this concept of like, we can go like, yes, there is ADA, that is critically important. That is also not where the buck should stop, though, when we’re thinking about accessibility. And Universal Design is thinking about how, like, how do we create a space that’s accessible for everyone. Because when it is truly accessible for everyone, everyone benefits for that, even if you don’t have a disability,


That’s so awesome. I love to hear that. I love that. There are people out there working on this and really like putting their all behind making the outdoors more accessible for all of us to enjoy. In my experience, the ability to be outside and moving. I think, you know, I think one of the things I want to kind of, as we wrap up here talk to you a little bit about is movement, like all of this matters, because both being outside but also moving our bodies in the ways that we can is so liberating. And the intersection of those two experiences moving and being outside, I think, for me is actually when I feel the best and it actually makes my whole, the whole rest of my life, it makes all the health issues I have better. It’s actually better than medicine. Honestly. I was wondering if, from your experience, what has movement brought you in? Where does movement play into this piece of experiencing the outdoors for you?


That’s a great question, Kendall. And I think it goes back to this experience that I had when I was living in Italy, working and studying at a geologic field site in the middle of nowhere, which is a story on it’s own, as always, but I summitted the first mountain that I had ever summitted there, it was the top part of this ridge of mountains called the _______. And I did that. And I wrote about that in that article, you know, only because of the support, because the people that I was surrounded by, and it made me think when I was up there, about the same thing when I was sitting in a hospital bed, and I was only alive, really, because of the support of the people around me. And it made me really grateful, for you know, I guess like my team, no matter where I am, to support the movement, however, it is, like my movement at different points. I mean, I was completely incapacitated, you know, for several days or weeks sometimes, and movement look like being able to wiggle my finger up some days, you know, and I feel there’s, I have such an immense gratitude for my body. And for the people who have supported my body, to be able to move in whatever ways are available to me. So I think that act of being able to move you’re right, is so liberating, like I think about coming out of a really tough open heart surgery. And, you know, being in a coma that I was really struggling to wake out of. And I was, and we’ve talked about this before. And we share maybe some experience here. But you know, being conscious, but not being able to communicate is really difficult. And so being able to do that through movement, eventually, over time, that’s what made people realize that I was actually okay, and that I was going to come out of this. And so I think about how happy how liberated I felt how alive I felt in that moment, it was just because I was able to move a finger or like, you know, roll down tears off my face. And that, to me is just as liberating as like, somehow getting my body to the top of this mountain that I really did not know was going to happen. But the people around me knew that I could do it in one way or another, or I knew that at least that I was going to try my best and they were going to help me do my best. And so I think, you know, I guess when I think about movement, I think about my community, almost I think about that support, that’s been essential for me to be able to move in whatever ways are available to me. And the freedom within that.


That’s so beautiful. And I also think it’s so you know, interesting to me, because you talk about how like movement is so connected to community. And it’s been so connected to your ability to communicate your ability to ensure that you’re okay, like all of these, all these things. But that’s what you’re doing for other people. Now, whether it’s like leading a trip with your friends, or documenting how universal design is being embedded within access to outdoor recreation, it’s all part of kind of what other people have given to you, or what you just articulated other people have given to you. And that is a really cool thing that now you get to be a part of this in your own way, and really helping and bringing that to other people.


For all the people who don’t have disabilities who are listening, like, how are you being an accomplice, the people around you that you love in your life? I think that’s so important to think about, especially in the time of COVID how we’re doing and how we’re, you know, de burdening that from the people where they they don’t have to be the ones necessarily leading the trips, you know, and to be able to go on though, so, huh?


Absolutely. Absolutely. You’ve given us all so much to think about. I really appreciate you taking the time to come and chat with me today. AJ, thank you so much.


Well, thank you so much for having me.


Thank you so much for listening. You can subscribe to United Bodies wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode. It would be so helpful to us if you would rate and review the show. That helps more people like you find us. We’ll be back next week with more. 

United Bodies is a Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios production. The show is created and produced by me, Kendall Ciesemier. Michele Goodwin is our executive producer.