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Running crew celebrates Black culture on foot

Rob Jackson, right, founder of the running group RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy) shares Black history at Penn North, in front of a Billie Holiday mural at the Arch Social Club, during a chilly morning run. The RIOT Squad has incorporated Black history in their February runs. Feb. 21, 2021 p1
Rob Jackson, right, founder of the running group RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy) shares Black history at Penn North, in front of a Billie Holiday mural at the Arch Social Club, during a chilly morning run. The RIOT Squad has incorporated Black history in their February runs. Feb. 21, 2021 p1 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

A little past 8 a.m. on a recent Sunday, a group of Baltimore runners stopped partway through their route, near the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues, at the Black Arts District. They posed for a picture at the Arch Social Club, where a mural honors Charm City artists like Billie Holiday and Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of the leaders talked about Baltimore’s famous entertainers and the city’s authors while pointing out Everyone’s Place, a Black-owned mom and pop bookstore.

The team was there to mix some history in with their workout.

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Every Sunday in February, the group, called RIOT (Running Is Our Therapy) Squad, has been running to or from a different Black historical landmark in Baltimore. In this, their 2nd annual Black History Month tour, they’ve run all over the campus of Morgan State University, as alumni shared their experiences and pointed out the historically Black university’s architectural history. The squad has looked through the windows at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and learned how the place is one of few in the nation dedicated to preserving African American history.

“We’ve been doing that for the last few months, especially in the pandemic, taking pictures in certain places in Baltimore that promote either Black history or Black art or entrepreneurship,” said Jowanna Malone, 30, who joined RIOT Squad in 2019. She grew up in rural Georgia and has lived in Charles Village since 2017.

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Malone discovered the sport as an adult and loves the effort the group makes to combine educational city tours with running.

“There is this perception of Baltimore being some type of dangerous, bad kind of place,” Malone said. “I do appreciate the effort that the group makes and having us run through all different parts of Baltimore and showing us all the beauty of the city.”

Founded in 2015, RIOT Squad is among a network of Baltimore-based running crews using social media to coordinate meetups, share routes and uplift community and grassroots activism. This past year, founder Rob Jackson changed up the routes after noticing the crew was running mainly in the Inner Harbor area.

“We have a lot of transplants in the group,” said Jackson, 39. “We run all over the city now. I wanted everybody to get a piece of this history and see parts of Baltimore that they normally wouldn’t see.”

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Running routes have highlighted artwork like the Black Lives Matter Mural in front of City Hall, to the Black-owned businesses of RIOT runners like Mess in a Bottle and Good Part & Co., whose founder was featured in this month’s Under Armour campaign.

Jackson turned to running to process anxiety and stress from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after returning home from serving in the U.S. Army. Now a contracting officer, he started inviting his peers for runs, and six years later, the running crew has grown to over 30 members who meet up three times a week.

Jackson said growing up in Northeast Baltimore, the sport was foreign to him. Before he joined the military, he didn’t see distance running or Black-led run groups at all. Others agreed.

Tuan "Riley" Davis stretches after the morning run with a running group called RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy). RIOT Squad incorporates Black History in their February runs. Feb. 21, 2021 p6
Tuan "Riley" Davis stretches after the morning run with a running group called RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy). RIOT Squad incorporates Black History in their February runs. Feb. 21, 2021 p6 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“When you’re driving around different places, you may not see as many Black runners, we’re not as represented on television or just internationally in the sport,” said Tuan “Riley” Davis, who is from East Baltimore and joined RIOT Squad in 2019. “When I saw a group of runners that were Black, and they look[ed] around my age, all different shapes and sizes, I [knew] I could fit in with these guys.”

RIOT Squad is sponsored by Under Armour. Between this past October and Election Day, RIOT joined the Run to Vote initiative, where participants were encouraged to log 11.3 miles to show a commitment to civic engagement. Under Armour has also provided product for the Black History Month tour, pre-race tips from their Human Performance team, as well as highlighting RIOT Squad on social media.

Other Baltimore-founded groups like A Tribe Called Run are combining fitness with activism, organizing a three mile run-raiser for residents in Baltimore’s 12th district facing food insecurity. The Black Running Organization, also known as BRO, has combined running with service learning and college access. National groups like Back on My Feet, which uses running to combat homelessness, Black Men Run, and Black Girls Run have local chapters in Baltimore.

RIOT Squad membership has increased during the pandemic.

“People are just looking for a way to get out of the house, a way to still have a sense of community, a way to stay healthy and stay active,” said Alison Staples, 38, a RIOT Squad co-leader, who is from Woodlawn.

Rob Jackson, left, founder of the running group called RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy), with co-leader Alison Staples, right, at Penn Station after their group of about three dozen runners completed a morning run. RIOT Squad incorporates Black History in their February runs by including Black historical landmarks on their varied routes, and pausing for brief descriptions at these locations. Feb. 21, 2021 p10
Rob Jackson, left, founder of the running group called RIOT Squad (Running Is Our Therapy), with co-leader Alison Staples, right, at Penn Station after their group of about three dozen runners completed a morning run. RIOT Squad incorporates Black History in their February runs by including Black historical landmarks on their varied routes, and pausing for brief descriptions at these locations. Feb. 21, 2021 p10 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Jackson uses the group’s social media platform for conversations on mental health and fitness in addition to sharing the timing and routes for runs. Davis, 33, also says the sport teaches one to be mentally fit.

“Running is more like a mental test,” said Davis, who has run consecutively for over 270 days. “Do I have the mental strength to get up and keep going? Even on days when the weather may not be so nice, or I might not feel like it or I might be short on time.”

Malone says RIOT Squad has been a lifeline.

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“That’s probably the only sense of communication that I have with people that’s in real life, on a regular basis, [and] that I feel safe doing,” she said. “It’s been this great feedback loop of positive energy that has sustained me mentally throughout the pandemic.”

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This Sunday,the squad will meet at the Rusty Scupper Restaurant & Bar at 8 a.m. They’ll be visiting the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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