Inspired by Kayla: on life in Ethiopia, the impact of Girls Gotta Run and self care rituals
New month, new day, new energy, it's March! And as the sun is coming out to greet us more often, let’s keep it moving! With the transition of Black History Month into Women’s History Month, let's also continue to celebrate the women and girls in our lives. Check in with your sisters, girlfriends, daughters, mothers and aunts not only during those specific dates, but really every single moment! Support them, give them a long hug, text or pick up the phone to call or check in with your loved ones — take care of one another! "Walk in the direction of your higher self, go back and take a sister with you" — a quote I wrote down in my notebook from the race and wellness talk by the incredible women of Lululemon Lab NYC that I recently attended together with my friend Nichole.
Talking about allies, friends and family, people who will support you along the way — I met Kayla Nolan a couple years ago while being immersed in New York's running culture... She's not only one of the strongest and most humble human beings I know, but also the Executive Director of Girls Gotta Run Foundation (a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that invests in girls who use running and education to empower themselves and their communities). During the time we spent together, I've learned that she fully dedicated her time, energy and resources in improving the lives of young girls in Ethiopia. Thus, it just felt right to sit down with her and share Kayla's unique and inspiring story with you all:
Kayla! For the ones, who don’t know you, maybe you can say a few words about yourself...
Kayla: Hey everyone! I am Kayla and I am the Executive Director of Girls Gotta Run Foundation. I’ve been working with Girls Gotta Run or I’ve been volunteering with them for a long time, since about 2009 when I first went to Ethiopia for research purposes and then, in 2012, I started working with them as staff and in 2013, came on as the Executive Director. I spent maybe 4+ years working on the program, re-developing the program model for Girls Gotta Run and expanding our program impact over there, as well as their staff development. Now, I am based here in Seattle, working on organizational growth, outreach and partnerships. Before I was working with GGR, I was living in New York and so, this is how I got in touch with a lot of the running scene when it was growing at that time, before I headed over to Ethiopia to work with athletes over there.
Why did you decide to change your life and dedicate it to the girls in Ethiopia? What was your life before and how does it look like now?
Kayla: I went over to Ethiopia on a research grand when I was still in college. I was a runner in college and high school, mostly long distance and XC and I was doing track mainly to maintain XC fitness, but yeah I was training... no major half marathons, but for competitive reasons. We were like a D3 school and I got involved in running when I was younger. I didn’t have many friends, so I started running which was a great way to make new friends and build communities. So, in thinking about research opportunities, I thought about the relationship I’ve had with running and how I could explore that relationship in a different context. I first got involved with GGR during college and right after school, I was studying International Relations, I got involved with the Los Angeles Mayors Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development as a researcher for their gang violence reduction program, which was really great, I loved working with the group and everything but I just wanted to do something more creative, more dynamic with greater leadership opportunities. I just wanted to take up a greater challenge, so I saved up some money while working in L.A., left the job and moved to New York without a job. Just some money and a place to live. So, I needed something to do.
I was doing several presentations on my research at different conferences because nobody was doing this topic of female empowerment and women’s issues in society and its relationship to athletics, especially in East Africa. So, when I was presenting the GGR approach, I thought about joining the organization. At the time, it was an all-volunteer organization which was either going to grow into something that could support staff, increase programming and become a fully developed organization OR it was going to need to close down and scale back its programming over time.
I felt like this was a really interesting challenge to take on, the salary was almost nothing — so it was mainly like: if you can build it, you can have your own job. If you can raise some money to pay yourself, pay the organization, do it. Its a non-profit, so it always has to be at scale. Anyways! I don’t know, I was young and this just seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. This sounded like a big challenge, really exciting and interesting, so I just kind of jumped in and I started working there while in New York. I asked myself ‘How are we going to build this organization?’ ‘How are we doing this?’ And what is our impact?'
I started realizing we weren't really clear on what the impact was, we didn't know how we were being most effective in Ethiopia and that is really when I decided to build an organization that we can be proud of and reach out to donors and know that their money is going to something that matters and so, I needed to go to Ethiopia again! Before I moved to New York, I didn’t know what I was going to do for work and I remember, I had this idea when I was there, in 2009 for research, and I thought if I am ever at a place in my life where I just feel like I am not doing anything of value to myself or meaningful, I can come HERE and do something. There are just so many opportunities in Ethiopia for so many different types of people to be involved in meaningful ways, in peoples lives, both for yourself and for others.
This kind of stuck in the back of my mind and I’d really liked to continue to do something with Girls Gotta Run and the people that I met in Ethiopia. In 2009, I really didn’t know how that was supposed to happen. So, I think that’s where that seed was planted: if this opportunity came across, I would do it. And so it DID come across and, so I picked it up!! I mean like a crazy person. Sometimes I look back and I am really glad how I didn’t know how hard it was going to be because it was just impossible. I mean, it was just an Everest and when you completed Everest, there was another one, and another one on the horizon and you’re just like: how are we going to get through?
In the beginning it was really hard, we kind of had to rebuild and at the time, I was trying to rebuild these programs in Ethiopia which meant really analyzing what’s working and what’s not working because it can be hard and your ego really gets wrapped up in this. As an organization, you want the program to work, and at the same time, we just had to look and see what is working and what isn’t. We had to be honest.
From there, we rebuilt the program… I was living in Ethiopia, traveling by bus and visiting program locations… Cause we had no money! We had no money as an organization! I was living in these terrible apartments and… I mean it is what it is but taking the bus, you know really just IN the community, living in peoples' homes. It was an incredible immersion which ended up being a great program because it was just built by the community and I was just in there and I had no other choice. We didn’t have any money for me to be anywhere else. We just went to these smaller communities and I was staying there and was working with people, people that I knew from 2009, too so it was nice to have those longer term relationships to build off of.
This past year, it was the first year, we had a salary for a full-time executive director position that could fund a U.S. position, so I moved back to the States. Our program was going really well and we needed to have an organization to support them. You know, people need to be fundraising for these programs — that’s really when I decided to move back to Seattle and really go all in, in the leadership side, you know leading the organizational structure as supposed to program impact. It’s been a big shift… I was obviously fundraising from Ethiopia to keep everything going along with the board. The organization has been fantastic and the staff has been wonderful in Ethiopia, but now my life is about stepping outside of the shadows a bit and really letting more people know about what’s going on.
The girls aren’t here to say what’s going on in their lives and they don’t have the opportunity to come out here and talk to people about it, so my responsibility and the responsibility of the ones close to the organization is to help provide a platform to their voices to be heard and to be seen and to become just like a conduit for support, an investment in their initiatives. My job is kind of to bring it out of the community in Ethiopia and to share it with more people who would like to connect with this and who might not know about this and who might not know that it’s possible to connect with people in this way.
What does the work with GGR give you?
It’s given me so much! I mean… it’s given me the challenge worth my time and energy! I think that that is such a fortunate thing to have in your life — a challenge worth your time because if these issues would be easy to solve, they would be solved. If gender equity and cyclical structural poverty any violence against women, educational deficits, barriers and access to education, these are some of the biggest challenges they face… Access to food, access to environmental resources and I think, it’s nice to apply yourself to a challenge worth your time because it changes you. It gives so much back to you. Yeah, maybe I am not making a ton of money and maybe this doesn't work, I’ve been working on these programs for a while, maybe this doesn't come together, but luckily the programs did which I think is the point and from there, we got the funding and it IS going. There are times where I am worrying and thinking, maybe I am wasting my time trying to do something that is impossible but the challenge is just so transformative and I’ve learned so much from it, but also from the girls and the mothers.
In certain ways, I feel like I’ve been raised by their situations, I mean spending years with people, around mothers, girls and families, you just pick up a lot. The mothers for example, in the savings and entrepreneurship group, made me think about my own finances and how to manage my money and where I should be spending my money and my time. You know, talking to the girls and seeing their transformation through their peer-relationships make me really understand the importance of people that you can rely on, people that are close to you, that are like-minded and just the power of girls and women coming together, and how sacred and important that is. You know these are things you can read books on, these are best practices in developmental programming, they are not surprising, but they are the leading practices and programming but it’s just so different when you’re talking to people and really seeing them making huge gains in their life through micro-movements. A lot of these things are so easily translated to our own lives and I feel like I’ve gained a lot of valuable information. From the families and the girls and the mums.
It’s almost like a zen practice because working in Ethiopia is just unbelievably challenging just in terms of you know, the internet is out, the water is out, there is governmental challenges, societal challenges, cross-cultural relationships, just so much going on — so much is out of your control and you don’t get to decide on how you spend your time on something and that is a great practice in patience and trying to let go of something that you cannot control. So it’s been a transforming challenge, a worthy challenge, and then just the tangible lessons I’ve learned from the mums and the girls and then, having it be this meditative practice on patience and perseverance — just don't give up. I’ve learned a lot!
One of the best moments with GGR?
There was one that was really moving. We had a class of girls that graduated from our 3-year program and I was going back to see how the families are doing and how the program went and you know just doing some training evaluation and impact assessment of... you know — we got through 3 years — so what do we think, what did you guys do and how can we be better with this. One of the families had been with us, and they were saving their money and the mum… the parents invested in a little shop on their property and they just built this little tiny window basically in their fence and started selling small cookies and things like that that people could shop.
Over time, this shop became really popular and they started making a lot more money and you could just see their transformation of their whole life… in the beginning their front yard was empty, there was this tiny coffee tree planted and now, their coffee tree is huge and it had grown over time. The whole front yard was filled with crops. Lettuce was growing, corn, all kinds of foods, and their son — they had like a couple kids, I think 5 kids — but when I first visited, their youngest son, they weren't expected to have him and the mum went off of birth control because it was making her ill and she became pregnant and they were struggling so much. They weren't eating properly, they didn't have proper access to food and nutrition and she wasn't even able to feed him as an infant. They were really struggling, they were not sure if he was going to make it, and I went back and he's just like this young kid, walking around, eating this popsicle and just them talking to me about it, being able to save that money because of the scholarship and putting it into their shop. We didn't tell them to put it into the shop or anything. It’s just the amazing things that people can do with their own lives you know. They just rebuilt their whole lives over the years.
Firehiwote, their daughter, was really inspired, too. She was inspired by GGR and wanted to help people in need and help lower income members in her own community so she was doing research in high school on how to be involved and support community members in the best way. She really wants to help and in the future, work with the government and non-profits on poverty reduction in Ethiopia. It was just interesting and you just don't know how it’s effecting people and what they are doing so it was such a moving moment to see this huge transformation that people made in their own lives. That’s incredible and they really are in a better situation. Then, too, just the amazing externalities, these unplanned benefits from the program were really beautiful to see, how they made this program their own. We didn't anticipate it, we didn't plan this as an organization but they just took it into their own hands.
That was a beautiful moment because it was nice to see people taking ownership over their experience in the program which is really what you hope will happen if you create quality for people to work with. It’s been really inspiring to see how this has worked for the people.
How do you find balance in your every day? How do you take care of Kayla, too?
That is such an evolving concept, too, is how to acknowledge what you need and how to care for it because I think our needs change frequently and for example, when I was in Ethiopia, I was trying to maintain some kind of structure in my life that I could take with me no matter where I was because I was traveling a ton in Ethiopia and it is just challenging out there in certain ways. In other ways, I think it is easier compared to the United States, but a couple things help me — so really focusing on exercise and making it a thing I can do every day, so I would do a lot of indoor exercise because I couldn't always run and you know, its so ironic.
Running became a bit challenging because I would get harassed while I was running, people would pull my hair or throw a rock at me or kids would chase me or a dog would chase me or a truck would run by and I would get a rock into my eye — it was just really hard and it’s scary to run alone sometimes, just in any city, it’s always good to run with someone and sometimes you don’t have anyone to run with — you know it just got really out of my hands and I tried to identify, what can I take back control of. I needed to take control of my physical health. I also couldn’t control what I eat, I am vegetarian and have been since high school and have been vegan before and plant based, and it was just such a big part of who I am. In Ethiopia, it’s great because there is a big focus on vegetarian diet and fasting but also at other times, you just eat what you can and what’s available seasonally… so I felt like I couldn't have control of anything in my life, what I was eating, what I was exercising, what I can do professionally, it was shifting everyday so I started taking time in the mornings to eat something simple and work out and have a softer entry into the day, that was really helpful and journaling was also really helpful, kind of putting thoughts down every day. So, when I came to the States, I thought everything was going to be fine and I thought ‘Now I am living in the States, what possible issues can I have?’ because I have everything, I have running water, I have electricity, I have internet, you know I can do anything, I can eat anything. You know I thought I understand the challenges in Ethiopia, but when I would come to the States: no problem! But when I came back it was surprisingly hard, I had to just again ask myself: how can I take care of myself and make sure that I am doing well so that everything else can flow well.
It came back to the thought of: what can I control and structure for myself and just focusing on essential things. Eating well, drinking water. Having a consistent work schedule. I work independently and have to set my own schedule, so really trying to be consistent with something so that I can rely on it. Some kind of routine or structure that I can fall back on. It hasn’t been always running that I can fall back into so you know, it had to be some kind of exercise or yoga or something and I do think those physical activities — meditating, journaling, working out, eating right and drinking water — those things just seem so basic but I just feel like they are really important.
Kayla! Thank you so so much for your time, I cannot wait to see you in person this week and I hope You, my friends got as inspired as I am right now!! Maybe this gives you some energy and a different perspective on life. With this interview I wanted you to get to know Kayla and Girls Gotta Run a little bit better, but also share and show you ways on how to get involved with such an amazing organization. From raising awareness, collecting donations for the girls during my first Marathon in 2016 to creating more community events and getting more people stoked about the cause, it's been such a rewarding journey with them. Super happy I get to spend my time supporting these girls and women! I hope to see you at one of our events very soon!! Happy international women's and girls day every day! xx
Ways to support and engage with GirlsGottaRun:
1. Come to our events!
There are even 2!! happening this Thursday, on International Women's Day March 8th in New York: one in the morning together with District Vision and 3rd Ritual at Skyting Yoga (sign up here) and one in the evening with NYRR as we celebrate Women's Running (sign up here). Kayla will be in the city this week and I hope you get a chance to meet her in person!
2. If you cannot participate, you can donate from anywhere in the world via this link!
3. Sponsor a girl and provide a year-long Athletic Scholarship for a girl in Sodo or Bekoji, Ethiopia. Learn more here.
4. Raise awareness or even, run a race and raise funds by collecting donations for this cause! I did it for my first marathon and it was such a great experience, think about it and learn more here!